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Touring Henderson Survey

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Louise Henderson, Cubist Still Life, 1954, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2019 Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Canterbury and Wellington, 1929–1947    Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Canterbury and Wellington, 1929–1947   Louise Henderson, Plain and Hills, 1936, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, purchased 2003 Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Emerging Abstraction, 1950s Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Emerging Abstraction, 1950s Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Middle East, 1956–59 Louise Henderson, Arab Portrait, 1958, Private collection, Auckland Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Middle East, 1956–59 Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Elements, Air and Water, 1963–65 Louise Henderson, The Lakes (triptych), 1965, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1965 Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Elements, Air and Water, 1963–65 Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Bush Series, 1970–72 Louise Henderson, Bush series 3, 1970, Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: Bush Series, 1970–72 Louise Henderson, Garden, 1977, Private collection, Wellington Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: The Twelve Months, 1987  Louise Henderson: From Life, as installed at Auckland Art Gallery Toi Tamaki--the section: The Twelve Months, 1987 Louise Henderson, January, 1987, Private collection, Auckland.

Walking through you get a distinct physical experience from the installation of paintings limited to each period, a flavour particular to that immersive architectural space in the sequence. This provides a refreshing physical and mental experience, looking at Henderson's different thematic preoccupations that sometimes are ambiguous: 'constructivist' abstractions for example doubling as clothed male Arab figures, or clouds in sky doubling as blurry (vague with no detail) self-portraits.

Auckland

 

Louise Henderson
From Life
Curated by Julia Waite, Felicity Milburn and Lara Strongman

 

2 November 2019 - 8 March 2020

In June it opens at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

In this travelling Louise Henderson (1902 -1994) retrospective—a partnership between the main art institutions of Auckland and Christchurch—we see a focussed examination of the life work of the well-travelled French/New Zealand painter, with her many interests and styles (but mainly semi-cubist portraits, still-lives and landscapes) divided into seven linked thematic sections.

Born and raised in France, Henderson married a New Zealander and came to Christchurch in 1926 (getting a job in teaching embroidery and design at the Canterbury School of Art, and then befriending the members of the (comparatively) experimental coterie, The Group), bringing a then rare European sensibility to the three New Zealand cities she lived and worked in. They moved to Wellington in 1942 where she continued teaching and painting. In 1950 they moved to Auckland.

In the early fifties Henderson studied with the cubist painter, Jean Metzinger, in Paris and then with husband Hubert travelled for several years throughout the Middle East, observing its people, bright light and geometric architecture. They returned to Auckland and after more teaching and some commissions, Louise had a research trip to Europe and the UK in the mid-sixties. When she returned to New Zealand, she was struck by its distinctive landscape and vegetation—enthusiastic about it as subject matter for painting.

Within the exhibition’s organisation, each demarcated stylistic division is very clear (see images), and often formally tight, so walking through you get a distinct physical experience from the installation of paintings limited to each period, a flavour particular to that immersive architectural space in the sequence.

This provides a refreshing physical and mental experience, looking at her different thematic preoccupations that sometimes are ambiguous: ‘constructivist’ abstractions for example doubling as clothed male Arab figures, or clouds in sky doubling as blurry (vague with no detail) self-portraits.

The scale of Three Women of Jerusalem (1959) shows us Henderson‘s determination to be taken seriously as a woman artist who can strut her stuff with male colleagues (like Milan Mrkusich) who use large canvases. The work is confident, muscular and rhythmic—a big leap in her formal ambitions that leads eventually to the line of seasonal works at the end of the exhibition. Its synthetic cubist flatness and nuanced placement of elements indicate she was more beholden to Gris than Picasso (despite being a nod to his Three Harlequins, 1921), a logical product perhaps of being taught by Jean Metzinger in the early fifties.

Although in her early works Henderson might be seen as a bit of a magpie (especially with friends like Rita Angus, or teachers like John Weeks), with the more brusherly (less hard-edged shaped) works she appears more avant-garde—influenced by Abstract Expressionism in the early sixties, though still linked to the palpable world (its weather conditions, landforms, vegetation and light) as content. Here her work becomes looser and less geometric—more atmospheric, though rarely totally abstract.

This is a fascinating exhibition, and a pleasure to wander around, circumnavigating back and forth, making comparisons and links. As a body of work though, I’m not sure it successfully argues for the re-evaluation of Henderson‘s status that the curators advocate. Henderson’s career is too fragmented, with sections of stopping and starting—spontaneous gains and sliding reversals—and gaps, that result in an insufficient number of resolved ‘mature’ works to make any sustained art historical impact.

John Hurrell

Readers please note that the images of individual works here are mostly too harsh in their colour. (They are just a vague guide.) Take a look at the install shots by Sam Hartnett for a better sense of Henderson’s ability as a colourist.

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