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Jewish Lives | Visual Arts Leonard Bell

Jewish Lives | Visual Arts Leonard Bell


Before the mid twentieth century few Jews were involved in the visual arts in New Zealand. Writer Leonard Bell summarises the important role émigré Jews had to play in shaping contemporary New Zealand's cultural landscape.

From the mid 20th century there were major advances in the visual arts in New Zealand; prominent agents of change were people of Jewish descent, notably refugees from Nazism. They helped decisively re-shape New Zealand’s cultural and social landscapes; introducing new knowledge and practices, facilitating change and progress.  

These refugees brought extensive knowledge of Europe’s artistic heritage and modernist-informed cultural practices, then little-known in New Zealand. Modern urban practices migrated with them, shaping development of modern urban culture here. Their most obvious impact was in architecture, engineering, landscape design and planning, urban, suburban and rural, and in communicating these new practices. Max Rosenfeld was the most widely-known. Trained as an architect in Czechoslovakia, he arrived here in 1940.  

A prolific writer on house design and the making of homes as spaces of warmth and comfort he was the major influence in the realm of moderately-priced houses for middle and lower income house-builders from the late 1940s to the 1970s.

Friedrich Neumann (Newman from 1948/1900-64), an architect/engineer educated in Vienna and Paris, also successfully adapted modernist practices to New Zealand ways. He was primarily responsible for some off the largest manmade structures and monuments to a modernising vision – hydroelectric powers stations such as Maraetai and Whakamau in the Central North Island, and Roxborough in the South constructed in the 1950s.

As an architect/engineer, town planner, environmentalist and social activist, Berlin-born, Helmut Einhorn (1911-88), was another influential émigré. He was primarily responsible for some of New Zealand’s most advanced public works projects, notably at the new Canterbury University campus at Ilam in 1957, the Hydro-electric power station programme in the mid 1960s, and the Wellington city motorway from the late 1960s. The most internationally eminent in the 1930s, of the refugee architects was Henry Kulka (1970-71), who arrived here in March 1940. Born in Littau, now the Czech Republic, Kulka was the first assistant of Adolf Loos, the great Central European architect. Kulka was employed by Fletcher Construction Company Limited, eventually becoming their Chief Architect.  He was responsible for an impressive list of new and renovated buildings, industrial, commercial and domestic.

Cameras cross boundaries much more easily than other visual media. Several refugees from Nazism were leading practitioners in both commercial and ‘art’ photography, introducing modernist approaches, as well as promoting the aesthetic and scientific values of photography.

Frank Hofmann (1916-89), who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1940, was a commercial photographer and an ‘art’ photographer, producing superb images. He also wrote about photography for periodicals and engaged extensively with Camera Clubs, in a period when photography was not considered ‘art’.

Irene Koppel (1911-2004), Hamburg-trained, fled to London in 1934, then migrated to New Zealand in1937. In Wellington, she set up her own studio in 1940, when few women did so. Her familiarity with innovative, inter-war German ‘New photography’ informed her portraits, street scenes, or photo-essays and photo-journalism. During the War her work featured frequently in the main illustrated weekly magazines.

A later immigrant Marti Friedlander is now something of a ‘national treasure’ Born in London’s Jewish East End she arrived in 1958. New Zealand turned out to be the right place at the right time for her. She emerged as a key figure; her photographs published in newspapers and periodicals, with highly successful books such as Moko: the Art of Maori Tattooing in the Twentieth Century (1972), Larks in a Paradise: Portraits of New Zealand (1974) and Contemporary New Zealand Artists A – M (1980).

American-born Larence (Lazar) Shustak (1926-2003), founded the Photography Department at the Ilam school of Fine Arts, Canterbury University, in 1973. A highly-regarded photographer, he worked primarily in New York before. His most celebrated works are his Black Jews (1961), his Flower People (1968) and his portraits of jazz musicians.

Jewish émigrés had less impact in painting. Still, several mid 20th century practitioners were influential. Frederick Ost (1905-85) was another sophisticated Central European intellectual: a Prague-trained architect, artist, playwright, essayist, and editor, who reached in New Zealand in 1940. His art was informed by Cubist, Constructivist and Expressionist elements, all of which were new to visual culture here then.

The paternal forbears of Patrick Hayman (1915-88) migrated to New Zealand in the 1860s. 1908. Hayman’s experience of anti-semitism at Public School in England, 1930s fascism in Britain and the threat of war drove him to Dunedin in 1936. Widely informed in art and literature, Hayman’s painting was in that primitivising current of modern art; faux naïf, figures and objects rendered often in a child-like manner. In the mid 1940s, he returned to England, where he had a critically well-regarded career.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928 - 2000) was already an internationally famous artist when he decided to make New Zealand his part-time home.  An 1973 exhibition of his works, characterised by their exuberant colour and spiraling and curvilinear shapes, was spectacularly successful here. Vienna-born Hundertwasser sought permanent residency and acquired New Zealand citizenship in 1988. Subsequently his koru- or fern-frond derived design for a proposed new New Zealand flag, the highly ornate public toilet in Kawakawa, and his environmentalist activism attracted more attention here than his painting.   

In other areas of the visual arts ‘world’ too Jews were key figures. Prominent collectors in the colonial period and pre World War II include Ernst and Moss Davis and Willi Fels, and after the War Walter and Lore Auburn, Charles Brasch and Harriet Friedlander. The most prominent were Les and Milly Paris. Their collection of modern New Zealand art grew and grew, almost crowding them out of their Wellington house. Their support was always appreciated by artists, in particular when few artists made living wages. Les and Milly Paris offered a model of discernment and enthusiasm.

Milly Paris, Chris Coad Photography-2.jpg

Milly Paris

Art Collector, Milly Paris. Photograph by Chris Coad Photography ©. Reproduced here with permission for the JoM.


This abridged version of the chapter titled Border Crossings: The Visual Arts by Leonard Bell, was created for JoM with the kind permission of the authors of Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History, edited by Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow, and published by Random House in 2012. 


Image header (abve): Photograph, silver gelatin print. Design for bookplate Hofmann, Frank, circa 1945. Purchased by Te Papa Tongarewa in 2010 with the assistance of Andrew and Jenny Smith. © Te Papa Tongarewa. PERMISSION PENDING

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