A Conversation with Lois White

Lois White was associated with Elam School of Art in Auckland from the late nineteen-twenties up until the nineteen-forties, at first as a student, later as a teacher. Her sensitivity as a painter to social issues, combined with an interest in figure compositions carried out in a highly decorative style, have made her something of an isolated figure in the mainstream history of painting here. In this conversation she talks about the influences on her work and relationships with such Elam colleagues as A.J.C. Fisher, John Weeks and A.R.D. Fairburn.

The War Makers 1937
Oil, 705 x 851 mm.
(Auckland City Art Gallery)

ART NEW ZEALAND: You started as a student at Elam the same year that A.J.C. Fisher became director didn't you?
LOIS WHITE: I can't remember whether he came in the year that I enrolled, or the year after.
A.N.Z..: 1924?
L.W.: Yes.
A.N.Z..: What were your first impressions of him?
L.W.: At that time he was a man full of vigour - mental and otherwise. In later years his health was poor. He had a bad heart and he wasn't able to do so much.
A.N.Z..: His influence on you as a painter must have been a strong one.
L.W.: I always felt that when I had done something, I wanted to know what his idea of it was. Over the years, the strongest influence on all my thinking and working came from him.
A.N.Z..: What were the specific influences?
L.W.: He set me going on using painting and design as a means of expressing ideas, I suppose you would say, pictorially. And also in considering the different attitudes of men amongst each other - men and women. That sort of thing would be working in my head when I was using my hand to put down movements and pattern and characterisation - in the way I used characters to describe certain walks of life.

Lois White
Photograph by Marti Friedlander

A.N.Z..: Do you remember how this worked out in any specific paintings?
L.W.: Well, one that comes to mind immediately is a painting called Controversy. [Art New Zealand 9, p.47] Each figure represented some walk of life. I had to keep in mind what each represented. I got the feeling of what was happening in the composition from the tension between various kinds of people.
A.N.Z.: Was there an influence from the Drama in this?
LW.: No, I wasn't really thinking of the stage when I designed it. It was more like Shakespeare's 'All the world's a stage, and men and women merely players.,.. ' They do things through their lives, and so they become intertwined.
A.N.Z: Did the painting Controversy have a more particular subject?
L.W.: No. I just used all the different people I could think of - their environment and the way they lived and worked and acted. In the same way that the producer of a play would first read the play, and then when the characters came to life as a result of this reading start to design them into the whole.
A.N.Z.: So when you came to think of the various characters, would you do studies from life?
L.W.: No. I'd draw them all first. I'd design them first in one certain shape. It was going to be nearly a square, because it had to contain a whole lot of characters. I would find myself making shapes with the idea at the back of my mind that they would eventually turn into figures. I always designed the thing first without reference to anything - it would be a mental vision! Then I would think about whether it was going to be a still composition - that's when you would get your emphasis upon your verticals and horizontals; or whether it was going to be moving ... it might be jerky and staccato, or it might be rhythmic and flowing. In this picture, for instance, Gay Ladies, there are opposing diagonals as well as intertwining movement.

Study for an Annunciation c.1948
Pencil, 483 x 356 mm.
(Auckland City Art Gallery)

A.N.Z.: Your compositions often have a tendency toward the decorative ...
LW: I can't stop that! That's something that's built into me - and it comes out willy-nilly!
A.N.Z.: Were there any specific influences on you here?
L.W.: Well, when Mr Fisher came he introduced me to the compositions of the old masters. No-one had ever showed me anything like that before. It was only a very tiny library that we had at Elam in those days: but Mr Fisher talked about all sorts of things connected with drawing, construction, and using a light to convey on a flat surface undulating forms. One painter he was very keen on was Rembrandt. And there was El Greco. And I was very taken with all the figure compositions of Botticelli.
You were not to make a formula out of this, but to see how things are revealed to us by light failing on a form; and if it undulated, the gradations should undulate ' from the light. That got settled in my mind very early. I could use those ways of producing form as the old masters did.

Funeral March c.1936
Oil, 724 x 927 mm.
(Auckland City Art Gallery)

Mr Fisher made me use my brains as well as my feelings. I think it is that that brings things to life, rather than what abstract painters produce. I have done abstractions myself: but mainly it has been when I have been working into a design, trying to see the character of the shapes according to the idea that I've been aiming at. A.N.Z.: Did you look at modern painters? The Cubists?
L.W.: Oh yes. I looked at them all. Not just one kind - anything that I could get my eyes and brain working on. I was interested not just in one kind of painting or drawing. When I was able to travel in Europe, I looked at lots of painting. Some of them, though, to me were quite incomprehensible. I couldn't see the point of having a beautifully prepared canvas ... and all it had on it in the corner was a dot or a stripe! They left everything to the imagination! It didn't even stimulate my imagination though. To me it was just nonsense. I thought, well, that's just not for me, so I turned my back on it.
A.N.Z.: Getting back to Fisher's teaching methods ... what was his approach to colour?
L.W.: Mainly, he left that to me.

Study for Decorative Composition, undated
Conte, 260 x 260 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

A.N.Z.: He didn't think it was important?
L.W.: Oh yes, it was! Of course! The colour scheme was an integral part of the work.
A.N.Z.: But he didn't talk about the form creating potentialities of colour, for instance ... ?
L.W.: I don't know. I think that was put into my mind very early on. John Weeks was a great exponent of colour.
A.N.Z.: Were there lessons to be learnt from John Weeks?
L.W.: Well, I was a co-teacher on the staff with John - I wasn't a pupil of his. But as a friend, he would discuss things with me, and he would show me things. In his mind an emphasis was always put on the result of opposing warm and cool colours, light and dark tones - and the intermediate tones as well of course. What he was most interested in was achieving beautiful colour harmonies. Well, there are occasions when I didn't mind using disharmonious, or clashing colours. If it is a rather disturbing idea that you are trying to put over, the colour must not always be harmonious. John might come along and say, 'Ouch! It gives me the tooth-ache just to look at that colour!' And though there were occasions when I might want to get away from too great harmony of colour, I knew that, as a certain kind of person, John's feeling for harmony in colour schemes would always be uppermost.

Jonah and the Great Fish c.1945
Oil, 589 x 381 mm.

A.N.Z.: Did you talk a lot to John Weeks about painting?
LW: Well, he was always about and I was always about, in the staff?room and so on. We would discuss things that the different students did, because we were both interested in them. On occasions he would show me work of his own over in his studio.
A.N.Z.: Would he look at your work?
L.W.: Not the same as Mr Fisher would. Mr Fisher was always interested in what I was trying to do. He would always bring a lot of zeal and a strong feeling of the drama of life to the fore when he was looking at my work. He always knew why I was doing things, because he had opened my eyes in the first place to the fact that I could use design and colour and tone and pattern to express the thoughts that were in my mind. It was he who said: 'now you've got ideas about these various things - try to use this painting as a means to express them to other people!'

Wind Witches c.1935

A.N.Z.: And did you have quite strong ideas - about society?
L.W.: Oh yes. I suppose you could say I was a socialist. I felt strongly about social injustice. And the other thing I was always very interested in was the Old Testament - the Bible in general, but particularly the old stories, the Psalms, The Song of Solomon - they always appealed to me. But I came to realise that I had always taken the point of view of my parents, and my relatives, always voting for the party they had voted for, and I said to myself, I'm just echoing them. I decided it's about time I looked at myself and asked myself why!
A.N.Z: You became a rebel?
L.W.: Yes. I was.
A.N.Z.: Did A.J.C. Fisher encourage this independence of mind?
L.W.: Well he couldn't help it!
A.N.Z.: He was pretty left-wing of course?
L.W.: Very much so.
A.N.Z.: So there was a movement from that political awareness through into the painting?
L.W.: Yes.
A.N.Z..: What was Fisher like as a person?
L.W.: He was charming. It was more than charm really. He was able to convey great enthusiasm. He was the best friend I've ever had.
A.N.Z: As an Englishman coming out here, did he feel at all isolated?
L.W.: Towards the end of his life he had a trip back to Europe. And he said he found it was as if they were throwing up their hands in horror at him - they were pommies and he had become a New Zealander.
A.N.Z.: What about some of the other staff members at Elam. A.R.D. Fairburn, for instance. How did he get on with Fisher?
LM: They were great friends. They would argue, over politics mainly. They would talk of how people got into certain channels (like me, for instance) and then didn't realise they were in a rut because of the way they had been brought up. I found it all entrancing!
A.N.Z.: What about your own approach to your students?
L.W.: I would try to get them not just to copy the appearances of the models in front of them but to reason why they looked as they did from certain angles. I pointed out to them that it was light that made us know, without our touching the things, what shape they were. And as Mr Fisher did with me, I would give them subjects for figure composition. I tried to get them to see what you could do with composition.

Jubilation c.l945

A.N.Z.: How would you sum up A.J.C. Fisher's influence on your own work?
L.W.: He made me able to argue - not as fiercely as I possibly felt - over the things I felt strongly about. And he would talk about why and how you achieve certain things in your work. When you looked at a figure in a certain pose you were to think how it was made, how it worked: to realise that all the different parts looked as they did because they were made in a certain way, and being seen by you from a certain viewpoint.
A.N.Z.: When you say made, it almost sounds like a piece of sculpture that somebody made. But a human figure ...
L.W.: Well it is! It's made by God!
A.N.Z.: Then, you were not just to consider the surface impressions of things?
L.W.: No: it was a matter of thinking from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.
A.N.Z.: To talk about a specific work now. How did The Fleet's In get started? [The Fleet's In is reproduced on the cover of this issue.]
L.W.: I was working on the large mural that later got burned. I was working in the old W.E.A. building on it. I heard an awful hullabaloo in the street outside. It sounded as if there was a crowd of people who had all drunk a lot of beer. I thought: I wish they'd stop making that row. I want to get on with this work. I can't concentrate. Then I discovered what it was. Peace had been declared, and everyone had gone mad. It was quite a long walk from the old W.E.A. building down to Queen Street. One had to have one's armour on ' because the town would be full of sailors, looking for the opposite sex. That was the atmosphere that was abroad. So I think that how The Fleet's In got painted. I haven't got American sailors in the painting though: it's a more generalised evocation of that period.