Entangled histories, Megan Dunn

Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand 1930-1980
Leonard Bell
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869408732

Did you realise that artist Theo Schoon, best known for his modernist photographs of rippling mud pools, also performed Balinese dance? Have you heard of the Prague-born architect Imric Porsolt, once the art critic for the Auckland Star, his writing so biting and insightful that Colin McCahon declared: “Before Mr Porsolt there was no art criticism in New Zealand”? And what of the smoking dame on the cover of Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930-1980, her right hand tilted just so, the smoke spooling in a plume by her lit profile; her stare snaps back at the photographer as if to say “Stranger to whom?”

In Strangers Arrive, art historian and associate professor Leonard Bell addresses the influence of refugees on New Zealand culture, the forced migrants fleeing Nazism, the displaced people after WWII and escapees from Communist countries. Bell richly details their overlapping creative lives in Aotearoa as well as their often uneasy reception by a local, largely anglophile, audience. His episodic book is broad by his own admission; the text goes wide rather than deep and is divided into six sections, each addressing a different area of the arts up until 1980. The focus is primarily visual, concentrating on photography, painting and the applied arts, writing and architecture, charting the impact of the strangers’ European, sophisticated and metropolitan sensibilities on their new strange land.

From the outset, Bell acknowledges that the category “refugee” is homogenising and problematic, as there is no fundamental uniformity to their alien experiences and encounters. The strength of his sprawling overview is that it “reveals that this small country’s cultural past was much more heterogeneous than many mainstream historians and writers allow.” Strangers Arrive provides a diverse and international double-take on our mainstream art history that interrupts and complicates Hamish Keith’s classic regionalist narrative about our search to capture the “harsh clarity of [the] New Zealand light”.

And the dame on the cover is Helen Shaw – or Hella Hofmann – a New Zealand-born writer and critic, photographed by her husband Frank (formerly František) Hofmann. Born in Prague, Hofmann arrived in New Zealand in 1940, after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in this well-known image his wife stands in a passage of their Arney Road, Remuera house, designed for the couple by the British-born architect Vernon Brown. Posed as though guarding a threshold, her profile mirrored in the glass of a nearby picture, Shaw represents an atypical and intellectual modern woman, one not tied to apron strings. Bell’s intense and immaculate research zooms into focus when he analyses this artwork. Shaw’s early short stories “After the Dark” and “Blind” are evoked in the lighting and mood of Hofmann’s staged Hollywood image which Frank Sargeson described as “like a scene from Ibsen”. The house is new too – a “vernacular” design by Brown, whose domestic architecture helped replace the dominance of the English cottage in New Zealand. Hofmann was to photograph many of Brown’s buildings, and his formally inventive compositions captured the boldness of these modernist spaces. The artistic alliances at play here between Shaw, Hofmann and Brown exemplify the many entangled histories mapped in Strangers Arrive.

Bell writes:

Hofmann’s photograph functions, too, as a displaced self-portrait by a man who when asked to provide biographical details for a periodical responded that the photographer’s biography should surely be his pictures, which embody his ideas and views.

And Hofmann’s beautiful “New Objectivist” photographs are in abundance here, offering views of the renovated Parnell Baths, a close-up of hare’s tail grass stems in Whangamatā, and a doll on a shelf, shot on a hard diagonal, herself a little stranger here too. A commercial photographer and also a member of camera clubs – integral at the time – Hofmann’s images import from Czechoslovakia avant-garde techniques in the medium, such as defamiliarisation and surrealism. Hamburg-trained Irene (Irmgard) Koppel, on the other hand, excelled in street photography and photo essays, eventually setting up her own studio. She was one of the first professionals in New Zealand to use the German invention, a small Leica camera.

In an RNZ interview, Bell described Strangers Arrive as “a book with a lot of faces in it, very interesting faces”. And Koppel’s is one of those faces; her 1939 self-portrait, for instance, captures an apparently confident urbane young woman. Koppel was an adroit photographer of architecture, particularly Ernst Plischke projects. She’s a trail-blazer in a male-dominated industry.

Yet, at times, there are so many interesting faces in each chapter, popping up, then flicking back down, that it feels like playing the board-game Guess Who? Readers with no prior knowledge of the field will invariably find it harder to keep track of the loose ends. But perhaps this effect is intrinsic to the displacement of refugees; entry to New Zealand was restrictive, only about 1100 people were taken each year up until the 1940s, and xenophobia greeted many new arrivals. (Refugees were often blamed for “stealing” jobs, and the specific examples are sobering: from 1940 on, the British Medical Association insisted that no more refugee doctors be admitted.) Bell notes his book is not encyclopaedic; instead he has sketched the broader picture, partly inspired by his relationship with his parents-in-law, the Mandls, who arrived as Czechoslovakian refugees in New Zealand in 1939.

On radio, Bell observed: “it’s not the end of the story. I could do another book I suppose.” Perhaps he will. His “personal bias” is actually an asset and he’s at his best when closely focused on drawing out the psychology of the pictures and relating this to the biographical lives of his subjects. Strangers Arrive is the synthesis of many years of research dating back to the 1990s, and Bell has published numerous articles on Frank Hofmann (including a 2011 exhibition of his photography), Koppel, Gerda Eichbaum/Bell, Frederick Ost and others. The launch of the present book was accompanied by an exhibition at Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery, featuring works by Hofmann, Richard Sharell, Schoon, Ost, Kees Hos and Tom Kreisler, and architects Porsolt and Henry Kulka. And Bell’s book is, of course, illustrated with many of these works, too, the pictures offering tantalising glimpses into the evolution of New Zealand’s metropolitan past.

Sadly, the 1ZB building on Durham Lane, once described as Auckland’s first really modern building, was demolished in 1990. Porsolt, a graduate from the Czech Technical University in Prague, was the chief designer, and the building had a façade featuring horizontal glass window bans (rare in New Zealand architecture), and a sculptural, cantilevered stairwell. Bell describes the building as “Porsolt’s little bit of Prague in Durham Street”.

Porsolt is one of the book’s typically multi-talented refugees and, as a fellow art writer, I was especially enamoured of his criticism. In the mid-1970s, he described Auckland’s Civic theatre as a “rash and tawdry-looking barn … traversed by daring stairways which make you forget the cheapjack papier-mâché elephantiasis of the décor.” His comment will be foremost in my mind when I’m next there. He was also prescient on the work of McCahon and Woollaston, if not quite as funny. He urged visual arts writers to “cut loose from sterile stylistic analysis” and was also an influential teacher at the Auckland School of Architecture. Gerda Eichbaum (later Bell) was another seminal art critic. Like Porsolt, she could write fluent English and was the first person with a doctorate and advanced art history knowledge to settle in New Zealand. To read about her is to feel the presence of a kindred spirit. After fleeing Nazism, she arrived here and pioneered art historical informed criticism, whilst doing a series of odd jobs, ranging from working in the Woolworth’s haberdashery department to being employed in a warehouse office. Not much has changed for art writers financially, but we hope that the experience of refugees in Aotearoa is now more unequivocally open-minded – is it?

In his Stuff review, Andrew Paul Wood comments: “The dates covered by Bell – 1930-1980 – put [the book] firmly in the period of New Zealand’s largely unspoken Whites Only immigration policy that even discouraged Southern Europeans.” However, in the epilogue Bell reaches out to a new generation of immigrants, including artists Jae Hoon Lee and Liyen Chong, acknowledging the socio-political differences and similarities between the situation in the mid 20th century and now. He notes that “there are now more refugees and displaced people in the world than even before.” Strangers Arrive proves it’s time to make more room for them.

Bell’s book is also timely as it arrives in a new era of culture wars. Nationally and internationally, there is much debate about identity politics and the rights of Pākehā artists to reference indigenous cultures. Which brings me to the Jewish artist and architect Ost, whose pen-and-ink drawing of a fractured tiki gives Bell his title. Ost’s A Stranger Arrives was made in 1944 by a refugee closely identifying with its strange face – a stranger to whom?

Megan Dunn is an art writer; her first book Tinderbox has recently appeared.

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