Making Modernism:

Helen Stewart and the Wellington Art Scene 1946 - 1960


The story is a familiar one. The artist, returning to New Zealand from a progressive art context, is confronted by a culture that will not accept modernist experimentation in art. In this case, it's Helen Stewart. The hot bed of modernist activity is Sydney, where Stewart is closely associated with the Macquarie Galleries and the Contemporary Group. Her work is shown alongside artists like Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith, and its modernist elements are understood and encouraged. Here's what Kenneth Wilkinson says in 1934 about Stewart's first exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries:
Because they are different from what is being done in Australia, these portraits will probably excite disapproval, and in some quarters perhaps, derision; but there is no doubt about their quality. They express a splendidly decisive, individual, and penetrating vision. The colour in them is a delight. In design, they reflect the finest achievement of contemporary activity abroad.(1)

Even more startling are Wilkinson's comments about the role international modernism should play in Australian art. Stewart, he writes, has 'shed a good deal of the abstraction and the intellectual self-consciousness which contact with European circles impressed upon her', and although many artists 'seem to experience a reaction against European modes of expression when they return, the fact of passing through these modes infallibly enriches and develops their style.'

Washing Day 1958
Oil on hardboard, 510 x 605 mm.

Now to New Zealand, where Stewart returns in 1946, to Wellington. Her work is rejected by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, and in response, she refuses to exhibit there for another 13 years.(2) She is forced to create her own exhibition opportunities, outside the regular institutions used by artists in Wellington. Her first show in 1947 is located in the private studio of Mr A. R. Fraser in Lambton Quay, and features her work alongside a sampling of her contemporaries from Australia. Her second show takes place in the Wellington Central Library in 1949. The reviewer finds in 'the majority of cases, the crudeness of composition, draughtsmanship and colour effects indicates the beginner of promise, whose need is the guiding hand of one more experienced in art.'(3) This, to a 49 year old woman who had studied art in Europe and Australia.

According to Maxwell Riddle:
Stewart's later development took place in a climate of academic reaction and rejection, far removed from the mood of emerging modernism of Auckland in the fifties, where Colin McCahon, Kase Jackson, Louise Henderson etc were exploring the techniques and formulations of cubism, encouraged by the older John Weeks (who had studied under L'Hote), and by Eric Westbrook's energetic direction of the ACAG.(4)

As Pam Walker puts it, coming back to New Zealand 'must have been like stepping from a warm room into a cold street.'(5)

Oil on card, 300 x 225 mm.
(Collection of the Dowse Art Museum,
Lower Hutt)

Well, yes and no. Some of what is told here falls more into the category of art myth than anything else. If Helen Stewart's work was rejected by the Academy in 1946, then as the Academy's own catalogues reveal, she was back there exhibiting in 1948 (a nude in oil) and throughout the 1950s, a very different story to that of the 13 year hiatus supposedly ended when Stewart exhibited a portrait of Barc in 1958.

And if she could find sympathetic reviewers and institutions in Australia, the same is true here - of reviewers in the 1940s, and then institutions in the 1950s. Her 1947 exhibition was greeted, for example, by an intelligent account from E. C. Simpson in the Southern Cross which argued that 'her paintings prove that her pupil days are long forgotten and she has reached an individual mode of expression.' It is, he writes, 'a worthwhile show of sincere and vital contemporary art' and a 'matter for wonder that the New Zealand Academy, which was willing to hang her pictures twenty years ago, should reject them now that her art is individual and mature.'(6) Which begs the questions: were these really 'years in the wilderness' as one writer puts it?(7)

Portrait of Helen Crabb
Oil on board, 750 x 600 mm.
(Collection of Dowse Art Museum,
Lower Hutt)

The 1940s were a dry time in Wellington if you weren't able to take part in the exhibitions and dialogue provided by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. As Stewart shows, artists had to be proactive, and create their own exhibition opportunities. As her reviews prove, though, there was not a lack of attention for such endeavours, even if the quality of discourse was somewhat lacking when compared to Australia. The most significant absence concerned the lack of an institutional space in which modernists might feel themselves part of something larger, and be able to clearly identify with peers committed to similar projects.

The Wellington Central Library, where Stewart had her first solo exhibition was beginning to become an established venue for artists. Under the auspices of the head Librarian Stuart Perry, an upstairs corridor was made available, followed by a larger space downstairs, created by the evacuation of the newspaper reading room.(8) Many modernist artists had exhibitions there, including Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. Its importance extended from the library's refusal to discriminate against modernism, and while many artists exhibited traditional works in this space, it was a useful venue for the promotion of modernist art.

Perhaps the single most important development during the late 1940s was the opening of the Helen Hitchings Gallery in Bond Street. New Zealand's first modernist dealer gallery, it was unusual because of Hitchings's commitment to modernist art, as well as a modernist agenda regarding the applied arts. As Gordon Brown writes, the Helen Hitchings Gallery established 'a clientele who more easily were able to develop a sense of artistic discrimination through exposure to a continuously changing display of carefully selected paintings, prints and handicrafts.'(9)

Stewart was not slow to make use of Hitchings' gallery. Along with Cedric Savage, T. A. McCormack, S. B. Maclennan, Angus Gray, Barc, Evelyn Page, Jenny Campbell and Gwen Knight, Stewart was part of the Wellington Group, whose exhibition was held at the gallery in 1949. By no means all modernist, the show appeared to the reviewer as 'well-balanced' and 'stimulating', 'singularly free from extravagances'. Of Stewart, the reviewer noted: 'While several of Helen Stewart's landscapes are somewhat extreme in treatment, her "Nude" is soundly painted.'(10)

Portrait of Treania Smith
Oil on canvas 655 x 505 mm.

The Helen Hitchings Gallery's alleviation of the institutional problems facing modernist artists was only temporary. By 1951 Hitchings had closed up shop and taken a 'representative sample' of New Zealand art works to Europe. Hitchings told the New Zealand Listener that the exercise was an attempt to escape the unsuitable cultural climate of New Zealand, and to test the works against the 'informed critical appraisal' found in places like London and Paris.(11)

The closure of the gallery had immediate ramifications. It was, according to the Listener, the loss of 'a point where designers, producers, artists and the public can meet' and 'a friendly atmosphere in which to show [artists's] work and . . . hear it discussed'; and a venue for exhibitions to take place. An article in the Dominion of September 1951 tells of Sam Cairncross-one of the artists featured in Hitchings's selection of New Zealand art taken to Europe-having 'to cycle round Wellington for four days before he could find a hall to exhibit his paintings and etchings.'(12)

For Helen Stewart, 1951 was marked by the exhibition of a portrait at the Annual exhibition of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, an event followed in 1952 when she presented two portraits and a still life to the Academy's Autumn exhibition. The review emphasised that 'Much of Miss Stewart's painting has been done in Australia. She spent the greater part of 20 years there, besides long sojourns in England and France and is a member of the New South Wales Contemporary Group.'(13) The same sort of reaction greeted her inclusion in the Annual Exhibition at the Academy in the same year, noting Stewart was 'represented by a still life and an oil in which the resting figure of a woman is dressed in pink.'(14)

The other institutional site where Stewart exhibited in 1952 was that of the Wellington Art Club at 159 Willis Street. While available for exhibitions by individual artists, the Wellington Art Club existed 'to encourage young artists and foster artistic talent', providing 'premises and amenities of moderate cost.' Stewart was one of the club stalwarts singled out for praise in the August group exhibition, the reviewer suggesting that 'Helen Stewart's Paris training in art is reflected in her pictures, oils which also indicate the artist's developed colour sense. Examples are "The Yellow Shed" and "Pink and Green".'(15) In many ways, the Wellington Art Club was a training ground for artists before they entered the Academy of Fine Arts. Unlike the Academy, which only held exhibitions twice a year, the art club met regularly and provided practical help for artists. While it provided a context for artists to gather together and learn new skills, and was open to modernist art practice, it probably didn't form the most desirable context for an experienced artist like Stewart.

Still Life c. 1960
Oil on canvasboard, 510 x 609 mm.

The desire for suitable exhibition space was answered in 1953 by the opening of the Architectural Centre Gallery in Lambton Quay.(16) An extension of the Architectural Centre, which had made its rooms in Johnston Street available to artists, the gallery was promoted as an environment sympathetic to modernism. The Evening Post quoted Mr D. G. Porter, the outgoing president of the Architectural Centre as saying that one impulse behind the gallery was that 'Many of the more experimental and original painters, who should be a force in the community, up to now had little opportunity of exhibiting their work.'(17)

The Architectural Centre Gallery pursued an aggressive policy of exhibitions. Its 'rent' exhibitions were shows by individuals or groups who hired the space, and shared with the gallery a percentage of sales. 'Non-rent' exhibitions were put on for the edification of Wellington audiences, and contributed to the gallery's agenda of promoting what it called 'good design'. When the National Art Gallery turned down the 1958 exhibition British Abstract Painting because it was too radical, the Architectural Centre Gallery's decision to step into the National Art Gallery's shoes and take the show revealed that it took seriously its role as Wellington's modernist public gallery alternative.

Working with very limited funds, the gallery also managed to exhibit the work of Matisse, Picasso, the German expressionists, and modernist British and European art. Often this was achieved by relying on reproductions and limited edition prints, or by drawing on the small collections of art brought into the country by the refugees from Europe who fled World War II. While there were many ways in which the gallery was conservative and timid, it was most definitely committed to providing Wellington audiences with a taste of modernist culture, and was Wellington's answer to the Auckland City Art Gallery under Eric Westbrook. With its arrival, Wellington could no longer be considered a city without an institution committed to radically changing New Zealand attitudes to contemporary art.

Stewart quickly became aligned with the Architectural Centre Gallery, featuring in the Thursday Group's exhibition at the gallery in July 1953. A loose coalition of artists organised around a regular meeting on Thursday night in which models were hired and sketched by the artists, the Thursday Group believed 'that the style of painting which dominates most New Zealand exhibitions is unduly limited, through the rejection of work which does not conform to a traditional outlook, conventional style, or subject matter.'(18) Their exhibition featured 'a wide variety of styles, subjects and techniques, ranging from life studies and still-lifes to excursions in the abstract and semi-abstract.'(19) Stewart's work rates a mention in most of the reviews, her work being commonly described as 'vigorous'.

Stewart went overseas in the mid-1950s, on what was described as a 'refresher course', working with Adrian Heath, and studying at the St Martins School of Art and the Regent Street Polytechnic School.(20) On her return in 1957 she held an exhibition of paintings and prints at the Architectural Centre Gallery. Current newspaper articles recounted her trip in great detail, which might be read as an indication of the regard in which Stewart was held, as well as a sign of the status those who had been overseas had, in a culture where overseas training was seen as a necessary experience for one to be a proper artist, and where overseas travel was still not commonplace. From the moment of her return to Wellington, Stewart exhibited in a number of shows at the Architectural Centre Gallery: the 'seven-guineas exhibition' of 1957; an exhibition with Sheila Jenkins the following year, in which the Evening Post critic Eric Ramsden, never a fan of modernist painting, responded positively to the humour in works like Washing Day; and in 1959 another outing in the 'seven-guineas exhibition' of that year.(21)

One of the most interesting indications of Stewart's connection to the Architectural Centre Gallery was her article on abstraction, written for the Evening Post in 1958, and timed to coincide with the British Abstract Painting exhibition held that year. While the circumstances around this article are unclear, Stewart here acts in some ways as an official apologist for the gallery, articulating an explanation for abstraction that was based around her own theories of modernism, particularly the centrality of what's often termed 'design' or 'structure' within a composition.

It is an exciting experiment to make an abstraction of paintings by Old Masters whose amazing compositions are built on form balancing form, and the tension of light masses moving against dark masses in space. The juxtaposition of these forms in the picture is the real essence of the painting, and not the story-telling part which is the only thing most people think about. It is to clarify this situation and to retain only what he feels is the essential basis of good painting that the abstract artist has eliminated the object or used it as a point of departure for a real creation, where colour, shape, line and texture come triumphantly into their own.(22)

The existence of Stewart's text is clearly related to her recent trip to London and Europe: not only did she work with Adrian Heath, one of the artists featured in the exhibition, but she came into personal contact with contemporary British art, making her one of the few people in Wellington to have done so. She was, in this sense, a perfect commentator on the exhibition. But perhaps we can also understand Stewart's role as author of the article, whether determined by the newspaper or the Architectural Centre Gallery, as an indication of her status as an older, committed modernist, practicing in her own work the principles she outlined in the text; and of her status within the community of modernist artists grouped around the Architectural Centre Gallery in the 1950s in Wellington.

1. Kenneth Wilkinson, 'Miss Helen Stewart: Some Striking Portraits', Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 1934. Artist Scrapbook, Helen Stewart Estate.
2. Pam Walker, 'A Conscious and Insistent Economy', Art New Zealand 50, p. 74. This information came from Helen Stewart herself, according to Walker.
3. H.P., 'Paintings Exhibited at Central Library'. Unsourced newspaper clipping, Artist Scrapbook.
4. Maxwell Riddle, 'Helen Stewart, 1900-1983: New Zealand Painter', unpublished manuscript, Helen Stewart artist file, Auckland Art Gallery.
5. Pam Walker, op. cit., p.74.
6. E.C. Simpson, 'Australian Paintings of Helen Stewart', Southern Cross, 27 August 1947. Artist Scrapbook.
7. Patricia Fry, 'Helen Stewart: A Short Biography'. Unpublished manuscript, collection of Elva Bett.
8. Conversation with John Drawbridge, 05/04/00.
9. Gordon Brown, New Zealand Painting 1940-1960: Conformity and Dissension, Wellington, QE II Arts Council of New Zealand, Wellington 1981, p. 50.
10. 'New Art Group's First Exhibition', National Art Gallery Scrapbook, Te Papa Archives.
11. 'N.Z. Art Goes Overseas', N.Z. Listener, 25 May 1951. Te Papa Archives.
12. 'Artist's Search for Hall to Show Paintings', Dominion, 11 September 1951, p.11.
13. 'Women Artists Prominent in Academy's Exhibition', Dominion, 26 April 1952, p.12.
14. 'Women Artists at Academy Exhibition', Dominion, 29 October 1952, p.12.
15. 'Work in Wellington Art Club Exhibition has Much Interest', Dominion, 23 August 1952, p.16.
16. For more information on the Architectural Centre Gallery, see my essay in Vertical Living: A History of the Architectural Centre, Julia Gatley and Paul Walker (Eds.), forthcoming.
17. 'Gallery for Unknown Artists', Evening Post, 12 June 1953, p.6.
18. 'New Art Movement', Evening Post, 4 June 1953, p.4.
19. 'First Show by Thursday Group', Evening Post, 21 July 1953. National Art Gallery Scrapbook.
20. 'N.Z. Artist's Overseas Experience', Evening Post, 25 March 1957, p.9.
21. Eric Ramsden, 'Recognised Force in Art Circles', Evening Post, 8 October 1958, p.22.
22. Helen Stewart, 'Abstract Art Was Basis of Classic'. Newspaper clipping, National Art Gallery Scrapbook.