Summer Newsroom

‘I was free ... I could paint’

Louise Henderson, the subject of a new exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, occupies a distinctive niche in our art history. Pat Baskett revisits an interview she did with the painter in 1991.

For a summer treat and a visual feast I recommend an hour with Louise Henderson at the Auckland City Art Gallery. This dynamic, elfin-sized French woman never stopped painting from the moment she arrived here in 1925 until her death in 1994.

The exhibition’s chronological order takes the viewer on a virtual tour through her artistic development, beginning with the lesser known but breathtakingly beautiful landscapes she did in the 1930s. Many of these were painted in company with Rita Angus and evince a similar pictorial vocabulary.

New Zealand, she said, “was like a dream country ... I was free. I could paint.”

The fundamentals of her life have been well chronicled. She was born in Paris in 1902 into a middle class family and her father had been the sculptor Rodin’s secretary. Forbidden by her family from studying art, she went to classes in embroidery, lace design and drawing - and painted in secret.

It’s not known how she met New Zealander Hubert Henderson who was a Cambridge graduate. The story of their marriage in 1925 begins with her acceptance of his proposal before he left to return home. But her parents refused to let her, an unaccompanied single woman, travel by sea alone to join him. So their marriage was arranged by proxy at the New Zealand embassy in Paris, and repeated in Christchurch where he was a teacher of mathematics.

It ensured that, unlike Rita Angus, she had a secure base from which to indulge her passion. She learned to drive and took herself off on excursions into the countryside, often alone. She also taught embroidery and design at the Canterbury School of Art. When I interviewed her in September 1991, she was the last living painter of those women who, based around Christchurch between the wars, occupy a distinctive niche in our art history: Evelyn Page, Rita Angus, Olivia Spencer Bower.

Her move towards abstraction and cubism seems a natural progression for someone seeking a more profound visual exposition of reality. This is how she put it in 1991:

“I like the hard core of things. Cubism suited me because I could set up space relationships through lines rather than through using light. Light is a fraud because it changes so fast.”

Contact with John Weeks when the family moved to Auckland in 1950 cemented the direction she was headed in and he encouraged her to go to Paris to study with Jean Metzinger, one of the last cubist masters. So she spent 1952 there and returned with a painting with a special history – but which isn’t included in the current exhibition.

In typical artist fashion, Henderson was hard up in Paris and couldn’t afford good paper. Drawing in pencil, pastel and charcoal was, she said, a way to get to grips with cubism and newsprint was cheap. But her teacher wanted to know whether she could paint.

'The Lakes', painted by Henderson in 1965. Auckland Art Gallery. 

“He bought me a canvas and said that if I made a mess of it I would have to pay him the five pounds the canvas cost him. But if he liked my painting, I could have the canvas.”

Henderson’s painting was a nude called 'Woman in Blue'. The body was represented by interacting planes in the cubist manner and the work appealed to Metzinger. He let her take it home.

In Auckland, the pundits threw up their hands in horror – not at the work’s “unconventional” treatment of form but at its nakedness. Henderson, in a gesture that seems uncharacteristically submissive, drew a veil over the offending parts and the work was accepted for her 1953 show at the Auckland Art Gallery.

That exhibition was a milestone in the gallery’s history: it was the first time a contemporary artist was invited to hold a one-person show. Henderson exhibited 41 paintings.

Not quite 40 years later that work was included in 'The Cubist Years', her 1991 Auckland exhibition, mysteriously renamed 'The Blue Bird'. At the time Henderson commented: “I feel just a little bit annoyed about that.”

But, she noted, in a career that already spanned more than 60 years, such a trifle was so much water under the bridge.

The most powerful and beautiful of her paintings in the current exhibition are the large-scale purely abstract works she did after the death of her husband, Hubert. He had been consistently supportive of her and ensured she had a studio to work in. She wrote of her devastation at his death and her initial decision never to paint again.

These paintings belong to a series of 41 canvases called 'Elements – air and water' and in 1967 Henderson accompanied them for exhibition in Paris, Brussels and London. 

Her energy was always prodigious and her work routine disciplined. Her days began at 7am with reading – politics, art history, general history – and feeding stray cats. By 10am she was in her studio. The serious, sacred time for work was always between 1pm and 5pm when the light in her studio was, she said, particularly beautiful. My 1991 interview with her took place in her last studio, in an old villa in Sarawia street, Newmarket.

Five years earlier she had married her second husband, Danish Thomas Lucke, a ship’s electrician, younger than her by more than 20 years. They had bought 50 ha of steep land at remote Horeke in the Hokianga where Lucke was planting pawlonia trees. Her life was punctuated by five-hour bus trips north where they lived in a caravan while he built them a house.

In June 1993 she was made a Dame of the British Empire and she died in June the following year in Auckland after a short illness.

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