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Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930–1980

Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930–1980

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Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930–1980

757 pages
7 heures
Nov 17, 2017


"None of us had the faintest idea where we were going [but] during 193839 . . . the town [Christchurch] was made strangely interesting for anyone like myself, [with the] scattered arrival of the refugees'. All at once there were people among us who were actually from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin . . . who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius." —Anthony Alpers, 1985

From the 1930s through the 1950s, a substantial number of forced migrants refugees from Nazism, displaced people after World War II and escapees from Communist countries arrived in New Zealand from Europe. Among them were an extraordinary group of artists and writers, photographers and architects whose European modernism radically reshaped the arts in this country. In words and pictures, Strangers Arrive tells their story. Ranging across the arts from photographer Irene Koppel to art dealer and printmaker Kees Hos, architect Imric Porsolt to writer Antigone Kefala, Leonard Bell takes us inside New Zealand's bookstores and coffeehouses, studios and galleries to introduce us to a compelling body of artistic work. He asks key questions. How were migrants received by New Zealanders? How did displacement and settlement in New Zealand transform their work? How did the arrival of European modernists intersect with the burgeoning nationalist movement in the arts in New Zealand? Strangers Arrive introduces us to a talented group of aliens' who were critical catalysts for change in New Zealand culture.
Nov 17, 2017

À propos de l'auteur

Leonard Bell is associate professor of art history at the University of Auckland. His writings on cross-cultural interactions and representations and the work of travelling, migrant and refugee artists and photographers have been published in New Zealand, Britain, the United States, Australia, Germany and the Czech Republic. He is author of Marti Friedlander (Auckland University Press, 2009), Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori 1840–1914 (AUP, 1992) and In Transit: Questions of Home and Belonging in New Zealand Art (2007). He is co-editor of Jewish Lives in New Zealand (2012).

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Strangers Arrive - Leonard Bell

From the 1930s through the 1950s, a substantial number of forced migrants – refugees from Nazism, displaced people after World War II and escapees from Communist countries – arrived in New Zealand from Europe. Among them were an extraordinary group of artists and writers, photographers and architects whose European modernism radically reshaped the arts in this country.

In words and pictures, Strangers Arrive tells their story. Ranging across the arts from photographer Irene Koppel to art dealer and printmaker Kees Hos, architect Imric Porsolt to writer Antigone Kefala, Leonard Bell takes us inside New Zealand’s bookstores and coffeehouses, studios and galleries to introduce us to a compelling body of artistic work. He asks key questions: How were migrants received by New Zealanders? How did displacement and settlement in New Zealand transform their work? How did the arrival of European modernists intersect with the burgeoning nationalist movement in the arts in New Zealand? Strangers Arrive introduces us to a talented group of emigrés who were critical catalysts for change in New Zealand culture.

Leonard Bell is associate professor of art history at the University of Auckland. His writings on cross-cultural interactions and representations and the work of travelling, migrant and refugee artists and photographers have been published in New Zealand, Britain, the United States, Australia, Germany and the Czech Republic. He is author of Marti Friedlander (Auckland University Press, 2009), Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori 1840–1914 (AUP, 1992) and In Transit: Questions of Home and Belonging in New Zealand Art (2007). He is co-editor of Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History (2012).

Published as part of the

Gerrard & Marti Friedlander

Creative Lives Series.

Strangers Arrive

Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930–1980

Leonard Bell


Chapter One: Alien Registration

Chapter Two: Taking Pictures

Chapter Three: New Visions

Chapter Four: Words

Chapter Five: Architectural Episodes

Chapter Six: Virtual Strangers



Select Bibliography


Illustration credits


Frank Hofmann, Frank Hofmann and Eric Lee-Johnson, early 1950s.

Marti Friedlander, Kees Hos, c. 1967.

Irene Koppel, Self-portrait, c. 1939.

Marti Friedlander, Henry Kulka, c. 1967.

Frederick Ost, A Stranger Arrives, 1944, pen and ink on paper, 285 × 210 mm, published in Tikis: Impressions in black and white (1946).


Alien Registration

None of us had the faintest idea where we were going [but] during 1938–39… the town [Christchurch] was made strangely interesting for anyone like myself, [with the] scattered arrival of ‘the refugees’. All at once there were people among us who were actually from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin… who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius.

Antony Alpers, ‘Thank Offering’ (1985)

Tikis: Impressions in black and white was published in Wellington in 1946. Its author, Frederick Ost (1905–85), a Prague-trained polymath, and his wife, Greta Ostova, a professional cellist, had landed in New Zealand via Poland and England as refugees from Nazism in 1940.¹

Tikis reproduced seven of Ost’s large black pen-and-ink drawings. One is titled A Stranger Arrives (1944). There are several intersecting pictures within the composition, at the centre of which is a statuesque tiki figure; a small manikin sits at its base. Otherwise we see an internally framed harbourscape (recognisably Wellington, the site of arrival), parts of other pictures (abstract, constructivist and cubist), a guitar, bits of a vase, and other objects, such as a suitcase labelled New York, Praha (Prague), Lisbon, Paris. They signal where the stranger came from. The various parts abut one another obliquely; their borders indistinct or broken. They make up an assemblage of spatial dislocations; an image marked by fractures. A Stranger Arrives stands as a visual metaphor of the experiences, travel and travail of ‘aliens’, as refugees from Nazism and people from non-English-speaking countries were officially classified in New Zealand. Ost’s picture also exemplifies how displacement produces new configurations.

The Palestinian-American academic Edward Said claimed that ‘[m]odern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés and refugees’.² Creative ‘aliens’ in the mid-twentieth century contributed to cultural and social developments in Britain and America out of all proportion to their numbers.³ Strangers Arrive explores the cultural impact of forced migrants in New Zealand – those refugees from Nazism and the threat of war who arrived in the 1930s, and the survivors and displaced people (DPs) who arrived after World War II.

What impacts did these ‘strangers’ have on New Zealand’s culture and society? How prominent were they as agents of change? Which of their ideas and practices were influential, which were not, and why? How were the ‘aliens’ received by the locals? What roles did they play in the far-reaching cultural transformations and artistic developments that occurred in New Zealand from the 1940s to the 1970s and beyond?

Even in a small country a comprehensive coverage of refugee impacts in all spheres of activity would require several volumes. Strangers Arrive is partial. It focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the visual arts and on writing about visual culture: photography, painting, sculpture, graphic art, crafts, architecture and planning. I focus on some key characters: photographers Frank Hofmann, Irene Koppel and Richard Sharell; artists Ost, Patrick Hayman, Jan Michels and Kees Hos; Continental film distributor and theatrical impresario Natan Scheinwald; arts writers Imric Porsolt and Gerda Eichbaum (later Bell); architects Helmut Einhorn, Henry Kulka, Frederick Newman (Neumann), Tibor Donner, Vladimir Čačala and Porsolt. Others, more difficult to place, have important roles, too: town planner and writer Gerhard Rosenberg; print collector and advocate Walter Auburn; artist and teacher Rudi Gopas; writer Antigone Kefala; photographers Bettina (Lily Inge Byttiner), Maja Blumenfeld and Franz Barta; craftsmen and designers Edzer (Bob) Roukema and Felix Schwimmer; architect Ernst Gerson; bookseller and writer Robert Goodman; collector and musician Ernst Specht. Probably the best-known creative ‘aliens’ who were active in New Zealand in the mid-twentieth century are artist, craftsman and polemicist Theo Schoon, architect and planner Ernst Plischke and poet Karl Wolfskehl. Because they have now been written about extensively it would be redundant to foreground them; nevertheless, they make periodic appearances.

Frederick Ost and Greta Ostova, 1950.

The work and careers of these individuals exemplify not just the impacts of emigrés and the problems they faced, but also the tensions and complexities of their encounters with locals. A few of these ‘aliens’ are well known, even if little written about, but most are relatively obscure. Some might be regarded as minor. Yet close scrutiny shows that they played key roles in cultural change: as seminal triggers, as innovators in particular fields or as inspirational figures.

After World War I and the Russian Revolution the poet Osip Mandelstam observed, ‘In our day Europeans have been hurled out of their biographies, like balls from the pockets of billiard tables.’⁴ With the Nazi accession to power in 1933, the Anschluss in Austria and Munich Settlement in 1938, and then the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the numbers of people fleeing their countries became a flood.

Photograph of Ernst Plischke, New Zealand Listener, 5 January 1945.

Bettina (Lily Inge Byttiner), Karl Wolfskehl writing at his desk, c. 1945.

About 1100 refugees from the Nazis reached New Zealand before and during World War II.⁵ They were predominantly Jewish, or of Jewish descent, and had been forced out of Europe – from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia mainly, but also from Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands. After the war and into the 1950s several thousand more survivors of Nazism, relatives of earlier refugees, and DPs from Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic States fleeing communist totalitarianism landed up in New Zealand.⁶ New Zealand governments in the 1950s also supported immigration from the Netherlands. Many of those Dutch migrants were getting as far away as possible from the trauma and devastations of the war and they, too, were registered as ‘aliens’.⁷

The arrival of refugees, DPs and forced migrants, mostly from Continental Europe, changed the visual arts in New Zealand in two primary ways. The new arrivals transmitted European modernist and metropolitan ideas and practices, offering alternatives to the traditional Anglo-oriented visual arts and prevalent preoccupation with national identity. They also played crucial roles in introducing and enhancing the standing of traditional European cultural practices. Refugees’ and DPs’ cultural baggage included a strong belief in the essential social roles of the arts and the need to balance the traditional and the modern. They were either ahead of dominant local thinking or stimulated nascent cultural developments.

‘Aliens’ were critical catalysts for change and innovation in New Zealand culture. Fred Turnovsky, a refugee from Czechoslovakia, a major benefactor of the arts and long-time Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council member, succinctly characterised the Central European refugees from multilingual and multi-ethnic societies as ‘hybrids’, the ‘yeast that makes a society interesting’.

The title Strangers Arrive signals a distinctive perspective. The figure of ‘the stranger’ is integral to making sense of refugee and DP encounters with ‘natives’. The stranger is the outsider who, by his or her very nature, destabilises the established order and blurs boundaries. This figure held a powerful purchase during the calamitous twentieth century of wars, persecutions and forced migrations. Several early- and mid-century essays by Central European and American scholars, all titled ‘The Stranger’, elucidate the character.

German-Jewish sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918) defined the stranger as ‘he who comes today, and stays tomorrow, one in whom nearness and distance are synthesised’, and for whom fixity and movement come together.⁹ Simmel argued that while the stranger entered a new-to-him social space, that position was ‘determined by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning; that he imports qualities into it which do not and cannot stem from the [inside] group itself’.¹⁰ For Simmel the archetypal strangers were Jewish intellectuals and professionals, whose presence had such creatively stimulating and divisive effects in European societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

American scholar Margaret Wood’s 1936 essay offered a broader conceptualisation. Her stranger is determined not by length of contact, or by whether he or she stays or goes, but by the nature of the meetings between people who did not know one another before, who are strangers to one other.¹¹ She noted that sometimes strangers become insiders, and sometimes they remain outsiders, even when they stay.

Austrian-Jewish sociologist Alfred Schutz’s 1944 essay ‘The Stranger’ was written in America when he was a refugee from Nazism.¹² He addressed the ‘typical situation of a stranger (whether refugee or immigrant) trying to interpret the cultural pattern of [the] social group he approaches, and to orient himself within it’, in an attempt ‘to be permanently accepted, or at least tolerated by the group he approaches’.¹³ Almost invariably, Schutz argued, strangers interpret their new social environments in terms of the practices and concepts derived from the culture and society they had left. These may have limited applicability in the new environment and limited acceptance from its local members. The degree to which strangers and locals adjust to one another and absorb elements of the others’ cultural patterns, Schutz argued, determines whether strangers find acceptance, and cease to be strangers, or whether they remain ‘marginal’, ‘cultural hybrids on the edges of two differing cultural patterns, without belonging to either’.¹⁴

Shipping Line travel brochure for New Zealand, The New Zealand Shipping Co. LTD., London, England, 1939, and New Zealand in a Nutshell: Facts and Figures, E.V. Paul, Wellington, NZ, 1939. These small publications were offered to refugees from Czechoslovakia, whose other options for safe haven were Singapore and the Dominican Republic. They chose New Zealand.

The arrivals of strangers in these remote South Pacific islands unsettled locals. Even though immigration was minimal in New Zealand during the 1930s, refugees from Nazism generated significant comment. Ann Beaglehole’s A Small Price to Pay (1988) describes the governmental response: how difficult it was to gain entry; the suspicious treatment of ‘aliens’ and their surveillance and incarceration; the restrictions on movement and the use of cameras. Those 1100 or so refugees allowed in up to 1940 by numbers, and in proportion to the country’s population, constituted a much smaller intake than those admitted to Britain, the USA or Australia. Only Canada of the English-speaking countries was more restrictive. The doors to New Zealand were almost closed.

When Ernst Mandl (1897–1975), a refugee from Czechoslovakia, collected his entry visa from the New Zealand High Commission in London in mid-1939, he asked how many applications from people still in Europe had been rejected. The answer was ‘16,000’, and that was just the London office.¹⁵ Career diplomat Cyril Burdekin administered, though did not approve or reject, visa applications from Jewish and political refugees at the London High Commission. Burdekin substituted for the New Zealand representative at the League of Nations in Geneva in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Based at the High Commission from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, he attended the League’s Evian conference in Switzerland, which addressed the Jewish refugee ‘problem’ in 1939.¹⁶ Burdekin expressed sympathy for refugees, but stated that New Zealand’s economic situation limited the number it could accept. Golda Meir, who in 1938 was the Jewish observer from the British Mandate for Palestine, retorted about sympathisers, ‘We don’t want more sympathy. We want action.’¹⁷

Kennaway Henderson, Tomorrow, 8 January 1936. Tomorrow was a radical left-wing magazine, published in Christchurch and edited by Kennaway Henderson (1879–1960), otherwise a cartoonist.

George Fraser was a junior employee at the High Commission. In his memoir, Both Eyes Open, he claimed that the High Commission was not equipped to address the refugee situation. He assisted Burdekin, who he thought was the librarian. Fraser recalled, ‘It was a rewarding experience, meeting and corresponding with [applicants], although relatively few got through New Zealand’s net of suspicion and professional jealousy.’¹⁸ He lamented: ‘We could have recruited some of Europe’s finest… but balked at it.’ Fraser noted about those applicants who managed to get here that ‘their contribution to science, the arts and industry has more than repaid whatever they may have owed [this country]’.¹⁹

Individual and institutional reactions to refugees in New Zealand ranged the whole spectrum from paranoid hostility to positive support, usually depending on whether particular kinds of refugee were seen as assets or liabilities. Local branches of many professional and occupational associations were hostile. The British Medical Association, for example, demanded that refugee doctors should not be registered, with or without three years’ ‘retraining’ at Otago University College medical school. After 1939 no more refugee doctors were admitted.²⁰ Meanwhile, the executive committee of the Returned Services’ Association resolved in July 1945 that refugees should be sent back to their countries of origin.²¹ Less known is the reported obstructiveness of the Architectural Association towards attempts by foreign architects to register here. The refugee ‘problem’ was divisive in many institutions. For instance, in 1941 the Ruapehu Ski Club committee debated whether ‘enemy aliens’ should be allowed to join. Three members voted to ban them, but the majority favoured admission, though only with ‘extreme care’.²²

Such xenophobia was common in the media. NZ Truth, the widely read, populist weekly (and thus, perhaps, a reliable index of commonly held prejudices), was a potent rabble-rouser.²³ Refugees were blamed for stealing the jobs of locals or servicemen overseas. On 10 May 1939 an article titled ‘Why Foreigners?’ reported the Physical Education Society of New Zealand’s resolution of concern over the Wellington Technical College’s appointment of a ‘foreign physical instructor’, as they labelled Gisa Taglicht, who had been a professor of physical culture at Vienna University and was a refugee from Austria.²⁴ Truth opined that ‘our own flesh and blood should have preference… foreigners must not be given opportunities at the expense of our people’. On 13 March 1940 the paper described an ‘invidious infiltration of aliens into trade and industry’ and claimed that ‘swarms of alleged refugees have plagued the fur and clothing industries’. Doctors in particular were targeted. For example, on 21 February 1940 Truth bellowed that ‘New Zealand may be flooded with refugee doctors’, and that ‘if the tide is not stemmed… it will handicap children of men who fought the last war, while we extend preference to the children of their adversaries’.

A review of Welcome Stranger, a play by American playwright Aaron Hoffman, performed in Wellington in 1921, claimed that anti-Jewish prejudice was not accepted here; and yet anti-Semitism lay behind some of the antipathy to migrants.²⁵ On 17 January 1940 Truth advised its readers: ‘It is abundantly plain… that there must be no more refugees, particularly Jews, admitted,’ adding, ‘It should be unlawful [for them] to change their names,’ so that the ‘credulous public’ was not deceived. Prominent New Zealand-born writer Geoffrey de Montalk, the self-styled Count Potocki, penned virulent attacks on refugees, especially Jews. In a letter to The New Triad and an article published in Truth in late 1939, he deployed the crudest anti-Semitic bile. De Montalk wrote that ‘the case against the Jews is an overwhelming one… My ancestors created the civilisation of the European races for you and your Jew friends to drag down below the level of a Negro tribe.’ According to de Montalk, refugees were ‘loud, vindictive, hypercritical… hideous and degenerate’.²⁶

Gisa Taglicht, Evening Post, 1 February 1951. Taglicht (1898–1981) fled Vienna in 1938. She taught progressive rhythmic gymnastics, which has close affinities with modern dance. Director of physical education for the YWCA from 1943 to 1963, she had an extensive influence on dance and physical education in New Zealand. Taglicht returned to Vienna in 1964.

To focus just on hostility to refugees would misrepresent a much more complex social situation. Antagonistic responses were challenged by other New Zealanders. Writing to Truth in 1945, Arthur Sewell, professor of English at Auckland University College, declared:

[Y]ou have published with full page splashes and inflammatory headlines… on the treatment of refugees and ‘defaulters’… you have affected to be writing for the good of the country… you fill the air with such obscene clamour… [and] the language of the gutter press… [You make] scapegoats on whom they can vent their anger… you have learned nothing from the horror in Europe… You will not see that you may generate in the Dominion that barbarous intolerance with which Germany cancelled all civilization… [your article] becomes an act of nauseous cynicism to label your journal ‘Truth’.²⁷

Local Jews, Quakers and academics formed committees to facilitate visas and assist refugees. Artists and writers helped, too. For instance, in his ‘Forgotten Men: Whither the refugee’ (1939) Noel Hoggard, a well-known poet, publisher and printer, pleaded for humanitarian treatment of refugees, stating that ‘our immigration laws are unnecessarily harsh’.²⁸ The radical periodical Tomorrow made a plea for a much more liberal approach to immigration in 1939.²⁹ The same issue contained Jean Mather’s poem ‘The Refugees’: ‘We are the nameless ones/weary and desolate/… Who will receive us?’ First prize in poetry at the 1940 Centennial Exhibition went to J. R. Hervey from Christchurch for his ‘War Refugee’.


He is unhoused of life who goes

To no man’s land between

The closing walls of hate. He knows

Not that the land is green, for sight,

When every sense is baffled. His thought lies stunned

From reaching for a reason. He looks forward

But to no future, and backward,

But to no probable past. Was the world sunned

By love in the indeterminate time?

Did four espousing walls

Once turn the point of time’s asperity?

Such things could never be, never be,

But only the emasculate present, the hope that falls,

And the hammering dark…

He has seen blood blotting out the innocence

Of pastures. He has seen

The blotch of war upon a world made clean

By rectitude, and he came

By way of fear and flame

To nakedness. This passion cured

No sin, this cross procured

No rapt ascension. It was for nothing

He fled upon flints, and felt the breath

Of scorching death.

He raised no cry, uplifted

No salutation, and no weapon stained

His hand on whom was rained

The inscrutable fire. Yea, he was sifted

Who housed no lion of wrath, whose heart’s wide gesture

Folded mankind, whose eyes but asked

The spring beatitude, and foot and hand

The amorous land.

But these have fallen him as a vesture –

The day is iron.

He stabs the future with his stare,

But can no more discover

Life as lover.

J. R. Hervey, Selected Poems, Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1940.

J. R. Hervey’s ‘War Refugee’ was published in his Collected Poems (1940) and in Art in New Zealand in 1940. Hervey (1889–1958), who lived in Christchurch, was a widely published poet and Anglican clergyman.

R. A. K. Mason wrote his ‘dance drama’ The Refugee, performed in Auckland in 1945, to rebut the notorious RSA resolution. About a thousand people attended the New Theatre’s opening, which included a medley of pieces, starting with Mason’s.³⁰ His play located refugees from Nazism in a historical lineage in which all New Zealanders, including Māori, were migrants seeking refuge and safe lives because of adversity, whether economic, ‘racial’ or political: fleeing famine and persecution in Ireland, for instance, Highland clearances in Scotland, or slum conditions in industrial cities. The play climaxes with an impassioned speech by a Nazi concentration camp escapee, which sways the hitherto refugee-averse RSA members to see the error of their prejudices.³¹ Mason was not afraid to call out anti-Semitism among New Zealand’s home-grown intelligentsia. He attacked Gordon Mirams’ Speaking Candidly: Films and people in New Zealand (1945). Mirams attributed a lack ‘of social conscience and social responsibility’ in Hollywood, and its consequent corrupting effects, on Jews and Jewish culture, driven, so he claimed, by sex and money.³² Mason skewered Mirams’ book in the People’s Voice: ‘Speaking candidly… [i]t smells of anti-Semitism’, the ‘vilest’ of ‘racial doctrines’.³³

Playwright, actor, editor of arts periodicals and Quaker, the English immigrant Howard Wadman was another public defender and friend of refugees throughout the 1940s. In an article responding to the RSA resolution he ended, ‘We need more aliens not less.’³⁴ His play Life Sentence (1949) features refugee characters and presents a defence on their behalf.³⁵ The Stranger Within Thy Gates (1945), a booklet by the Rev. Charles Walker Chandler, invoked the Old Testament ethical imperative to offer hospitality to ‘strangers’ in response to manifestations of hostility to refugees. Chandler, Anglican dean of Hamilton, had come from Sydney to run Auckland’s City Mission in 1928. Besides tending to the homeless, he was active in prison reform and the New Zealand Peace Council.³⁶

In a stressed social and political environment it was never going to be easy for most refugees and displaced persons to settle. Later writings on displacement by Vilém Flusser (1920–91), a Czech-Jewish refugee in England and then Brazil, inform my perspective in this book. Flusser argued that refugees – he called them ‘expellees’ – must be creative to survive in their new environments. He knew well from personal experience how damaging forced migration was.³⁷ Yet he regarded displacement from former homes and estrangement in new locations as ‘incubators of creativity’.³⁸ He noted that dissonance and disagreement among people thrown together, whether through choice or necessity, generates creativity and innovation: ‘Discovery begins as soon as the [comfort] blanket is pulled away.’³⁹ Flusser observed how the intertwined, at times tense relationships between people working in different intellectual fields and media, as well as between individuals and groups from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, in his pre-war ‘home town’ Prague were highly stimulating creatively.⁴⁰

Immigrants certainly felt estranged in New Zealand. For the English periodical Horizon in 1943, the British writer, artist and traveller Anna Kavan pictured a place with an oppressive ‘sort of provincial Sunday afternoon feel in the air’, and lambasted ‘the defensive attitude’ of many New Zealand artists, writers and academics ‘to newcomers’, as if their independence were threatened: ‘their minds preoccupied and closed against strangers… [and] the menacing strangeness of an alien hemisphere’.⁴¹ Gerda Eichbaum, an art historian and refugee from Germany, found the visual arts in New Zealand lacking compared with Europe. In a 1946 report for the Education Department she commented:

Compared with the otherwise relatively high standard of general education in New Zealand, the knowledge and appreciation of the fine arts, both old and modern, is depressingly low. There is much understanding of drama, music and poetry, but a lack of acquaintance with the great masterpieces of the world in architecture, painting and the crafts… a factor which is reflected in the deplorable [general] taste in furnishings and buildings. For every ten pupils leaving high school with at least a superficial knowledge of the work of Molière and Mozart there will hardly be one who has heard of Watteau or Bramante.⁴²

Mirek Smíšek, Ceramic pot, 1950s or 1960s.

Migrants often found a culture that seemed conservative when compared to those they had come from. But for many, the war and postwar experience, the estrangement of arrival and the intersection of divergent worlds stimulated creativity. The potter Mirek Smíšek, a post-World War II refugee from Communist Czechoslovakia, recalled: ‘what I realised throughout all those very difficult times was that creativity was the answer… after all these troubles, I had to be creative’.⁴³ In a letter to A. R. D. Fairburn in 1947, Theo Schoon describes a similar connection between difficulty and creativity, recalling the

hectic days of the war, when I was persecuted by Manpower. They made my life hell… I had to go bush to regain my balance. In search of an ivory tower I struck a very suitable one of limestone where I found an unexpected source of learning as well as a safe refuge… namely caves and shelters covered with drawings [Māori rock art] close to the art of Klee and Miró… art unappreciated in New Zealand… I witness in this country the wholesale murder of art.⁴⁴

This cave art, and its parallels with mid-century European modernist work, became a temporary home for Schoon.

Strangers Arrive focuses not just on what ‘aliens’ did, but also on the social and cultural conditions that enabled or obstructed their work. It investigates encounters between refugees and locals who had mutual interests and affinities with one another, as well as the new professional networks and circles of friends that emerged. For refugees’ and DPs’ practices and ideas to be transmitted successfully there had to be receptive locals. Those attracted to creative strangers were usually young New Zealanders, often somewhat alienated from mainstream, bourgeois New Zealand society. Such locals were hungry for knowledge and culture from the wider world, seeking both the cultural traditions and the modernising currents in non-English-speaking Europe.

Douglas MacDiarmid, Portrait of Theo Schoon, 1945, oil on canvas, 354 × 283 mm.

More than a few New Zealanders felt enriched and enlightened by their encounters with creative strangers. Their own creativity was stimulated. Poet and playwright John Graham (born 1922), for instance, described how important Karl Wolfskehl (1869–1948) was for him in the 1940s: ‘I had met the person who was to open the gate for me to the world… a release from antipodean isolation, an alternative to what I had grown up with… Karl Wolfskehl pointed me in other directions.’⁴⁵ For young artist Gordon Walters (1919–95), Frederick Ost’s lectures on European modernism at Wellington’s Sketch Club in the early 1940s were vital, as were the copies of the seminal Surrealist periodical Minotaur that he borrowed from a Dutch refugee.⁴⁶

Artist Mervyn Williams (born 1940) recalls how Ernst Specht (1879–1961), a musician, traditional art connoisseur and intellectual from Vienna, inspired him as a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Specht introduced Williams to music, art and literature, as well as to other characters like the Austrian-born musician and conductor Georg Tintner and art connoisseur and collector Walter Auburn from Germany. Specht knew Richard Strauss and had met Brahms. His brother, Richard Specht (1870–1932), a poet and dramatist in Vienna, had written books on Beethoven, Puccini and Mahler. This was a new world for Williams and a major impetus in his decision to become an artist.⁴⁷ Journalist and academic James Bertram reflected on the war years: ‘These refugees, as they were still commonly called, were a most welcome leaven in the stolid lump of New Zealand society.’⁴⁸

John Holmwood, Ernst Specht, 1961, oil on canvas, 790 × 690 mm. Wellington-born Holmwood (1910–87) moved after the war to Auckland, where he was a prominent figurative artist. His house in Remuera was designed by emigré architect Imric Porsolt.

Various small, geographically dispersed, sometimes self-consciously cliquish groups of emigrés and locals emerged. Flusser would call them ‘dialogic networks’.⁴⁹ People working in different artistic and intellectual fields – art, photography, music, writing and academia – mixed. Here the stranger was welcomed. For instance, in Christchurch, scientist and musician Otto Frankel and his wife Tilli (née Donsbach, later Aldrich), an artist and model, were migrants from Germany, via Britain and the Mandate for Palestine. In their new home during the early to mid-1930s they ran a transplanted Central European salon.⁵⁰ When refugees such as the philosopher Karl Popper, Paul and Otti Binswanger (academic and progressive educationalist respectively), and Erwin and Marta Ziffer (architect and languages teacher) arrived in the later 1930s, they quickly segued into that milieu. Frankel by then was married to local artist Margaret Anderson. The homes of Joachim and Gertrud Kahn in Wellington and Ernst and Elisabeth Reizenstein in Auckland functioned similarly as meeting places for local artists, writers, musicians, academics and their ‘alien’ friends.

In Auckland in 1941 the Reizenstein family founded a bakery specialising in healthful Continental breads at 126 Ponsonby Road, and their products attracted a dedicated, almost cult following. Sharing bread is a good metaphor for their other activities. The circle Ernst (1902–70) formed met above the bakery in a room with artworks and Persian carpets brought from Germany.⁵¹ He also bought local art, especially Māori carving and Pacific tapa. The Backhaus (‘bakery castle’), as Karl Wolfskehl named it, attracted local intellectuals and artists as well as other refugees, such as Georg Tintner, Carl and Paul Hoffmann, and later Kees and Tine Hos. Young artist Dennis Knight Turner first saw graphic work by German Käthe Kollwitz there. Ernst Reizenstein was also an excellent violinist with the Auckland String Players, which was founded by Georg Tintner and included seven or so other refugees (see Chapter 2). Reizenstein’s identities multiplied. He was prominent in anthroposophical circles (the movement was Rudolf Steiner’s creation and another German import). A multilingual philologist, he studied philosophy and literature. Reizenstein frequented the Auckland Museum library and archives, and learnt te reo Māori as part of his quest to discover a common basis for all languages.⁵²

Naomi Bell, No. 126 Ponsonby Road, Auckland, the site of Reizenstein’s bakery and home in the 1940s.

Continental-style cafés and eateries, often opened or run by emigrés, played central roles in cultural conversations – for instance, Harry Seresin’s café in Parsons Bookshop and later the Downstage Theatre in Wellington, André Brooke’s at Gallery 91 in Christchurch, and Meme Churton’s Ca’ d’Oro and Odo Strewe’s café in Auckland.⁵³ The latter was supposedly inspired by the famous Romanisches Café, favoured by artists, writers and intellectuals in Berlin, from whence Strewe came.

Marriages between refugees and locals, another kind of ‘connective tissue’, were also key to the transmission of new ideas and practices. For example, in Auckland young sculptor Molly Macalister wed Hungarian-Jewish refugee George Haydn (formerly Hadju), Dennis Knight Turner married Hilde Simon, a German Jewish refugee, and Czech-Jewish photographer and musician Frank Hofmann married writer Helen Shaw. Other ‘alien’ creatives married natives, too: Irene Koppel, Frank Gross, André Brooke, Mirek Smíšek, Odo Strewe and Rudi Gopas (his second wife was the singer Airini Grennell), for example.

It was not just the locals who were transformed. ‘Aliens’ also changed as a result of their experiences in New Zealand. Meeting Māori people and encountering the indigenous flora, fauna and natural environment were emotionally important for many. The traffic was two-way. Creative outsiders introduced new ways of seeing and thinking which locals would not have arrived at alone. ‘Things’ New Zealand mediated what sort of New Zealanders ‘aliens’ became. Unpredicted transformations mark the lives and work of more than a few protagonists in Strangers Arrive.

Georg Kohlap, Seresin’s Coffee Gallery, Parsons Bookshop, in Ernst Plischke’s Massey house, Lambton Quay, Wellington, 1958. Harry Seresin (1919–94), a German-Jewish refugee from Nazism, was one of the first to offer ‘real’ coffee in Wellington. The bookshop’s café became a cultural and intellectual meeting place. One of the founders of Downstage Theatre and its restaurant, Seresin later established The Settlement, which combined restaurant, art gallery and craft market, as well as hosting music, poetry readings and book launches.

Some refugees and DPs acculturated quickly. Others did not, and never felt at home here. Even after many years in New Zealand, photographer and writer Richard Sharell (1893–1986) always felt a ‘sojourner in a foreign land’.⁵⁴ The DP protagonist in Antigone Kefala’s novel – or is it a disguised memoir? – The Island (1984) speaks of herself as ‘[l]ost among strangers’, whose ‘voices came from the dining room as if from a faraway country’.⁵⁵ Ethnically Greek, Kefala (born 1935) came to New Zealand with her family from Romania as a DP in 1954.⁵⁶ In 1964 Dutch writer Rob Wentholt, a 1940s immigrant, wrote that he ‘remained an exile in New Zealand… [that] post war society did not readily admit outsiders… [and] as one is more involved in New Zealand society [there are an] increasing number of walls to break down’.⁵⁷ Both Kefala and Wentholt did not stay, but migrated yet again. Leaving was common among pre-war refugees and postwar DPs: examples include Georg Tintner; architects Ernst Plischke, Erwin Ziffer and Renata Prince; academics Paul Binswanger, Karl Popper, Erik Schwimmer and Helmut Pappe; artists and craftspeople Kees Hos, Kurt Nussbaum, Ilse von Randow (who came back in 1990), Otti Binswanger, Jan Michels and Edzer Roukema; photographers Maja Blumenfeld and Hans and Nina Golding; cineaste and impresario Natan Scheinwald; modern dance exponents Gisa Taglicht and Edith Sipos; and writers Salomon Holzer and Greville Texidor. Artists Schoon and André Brooke came and went, returned and, in Schoon’s case, went again. The ground here remained unstable.

Lots of New Zealand-born artists, photographers, musicians and writers also left in mid-century looking for greater artistic stimuli. ‘There is a kind of exit en masse of frustrated New Zealanders leaving for England. Every second intellectual seems to be jumping on the next boat,’ Helen Shaw wrote in 1949.⁵⁸ Not that this was new. Artists and writers had left for richer pastures in Britain, Europe and Australia since the turn of the century. Writer Katherine Mansfield, an exemplum of alienation, was New Zealand’s most celebrated expatriate. Antony Alpers begins his biography of Mansfield (1953) by recounting his powerful personal identification with her as a young man ‘groping for expression’.⁵⁹ She represented the rich possibilities of a creative life unimaginable if one stayed in New Zealand.

Dennis Knight Turner, Hilde [Simon] (no. 1), 1945, oil on canvas, 356 × 457 mm. This painting was exhibited at Turner’s one-man show at the Auckland Society of Arts in October 1948. The Simon family were refugees from Germany.

There are obvious differences between European refugees and New Zealand expatriates and the circumstances that caused their migrations. Yet there are notable commonalities, too. Some expatriates felt like exiles in their countries of birth. Writer Robin Hyde, about to leave New Zealand in 1938, ruminated: ‘Listening in street and stall I hear two words. Their word and mine. Mine is not understood. Therefore I am an exile here, a stranger.’⁶⁰ Another writer and dislocated native, D’Arcy Cresswell, sustained by the view that there was ‘a methodical mediocrity in New Zealand’, declared in 1939 that, ‘while it [New Zealand] maintains the most rigid and unproductive system at home, it sends the most original and striking individuals abroad’.⁶¹ And the American Leslie Lipson, the first professor of political studies at Victoria University, observed in 1948:

A small nation has achieved so much… Yet persistently New Zealand refuses opportunities to its most talented sons and daughters, denies them the chance of creative expression and often drives them from its own shores in that annual ‘export of brains’ which is its greatest tragedy.⁶²

Whether to stay or go was an urgent question among artists, writers, musicians and scholars.

An entire book about mid-century expatriates and the visual arts waits for an author. For the purposes of Strangers Arrive, three make appearances: James Boswell, Douglas MacDiarmid and Douglas Glass. Having shifted from New Zealand to Europe, they offer counterpoints to flight to New Zealand. Boswell’s and MacDiarmid’s works were crucially inspired by their relationships with refugees from Europe and Continental European art and thought. Indeed their work is more Continental than ‘Anglo’ in style and sensibility. Both artists, though, are overlooked in standard histories of New Zealand art, as is Glass in histories of both New Zealand photography and painting. Glass’s work and sensibility, too, were shaped by Continental art and his experience of the war’s European ‘graveyard’. By leaving New Zealand permanently these men became ‘aliens’. That their unsettledness generated creativity also links them to refugees. ‘Human beings are not trees,’ Flusser wrote. It is the unsettled who are innovative: ‘Rootless beings make history.’⁶³ A fitting local instance was Charles Brasch, and the final chapter concludes with a picture of him. New Zealand born, he was also a typical twentieth-century Central European intellectual and man of letters, a Luftmensch (more concerned with intellectual than practical matters) even. The dialectic of departure and arrival, whether to stay or go, merges with movements between belonging and not belonging. They belong to the cluster of forces that drives this book.

Strangers Arrive offers alternative views to the standard histories of the visual arts in New Zealand. Individuals and works that were marginalised or forgotten in previous histories either because they didn’t fit into the prevailing artistic categories and narratives, or because what they did was too strange for most locals, are foregrounded. The book gathers

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