“This was quite a serious read but a really good one” – Lyn Potter
“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 Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930-1980, art historian Leonard Bell tells their stories in a richly illustrated book.
Not everyone welcomed these strangers and there were some disturbing examples of racism. He tells how 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’.
But over the years others befriended, supported and welcomed them as friends and colleagues. Many became leading figures in the art world, and made New Zealanders aware of international trends, especially modernism.
Finding jobs that suited their often high qualifications was problematic. Professional photographers found it easier then lawyers and doctors. Irene Koppel was one who succeeded. It was unusual in New Zealand for women to set up their own studios but she had come from pre Nazi Germany and Austria where there were numerous independent women photographers. Equipped with her Leica camera she was a trail blazer in photojournalism and a role model for other women.
A key figure in this book is Kees Hos who supported numerous artists, both talented newcomers and New Zealanders. Although not an emigre himself he hid and protected Jews in Holland during the war.
In the sixties I loved browsing in the New Vision Gallery (in Auckland’s His Majesty’s Arcade) which he established with his wife Tine. It was a treasure trove of pottery, weaving, jewellry, sculpture, photography and painting. Hos was deeply influenced by the Bauhaus so that whereas in other New Zealand galleries craft and fine arts were kept apart (as fine art was seen as superior) they were displayed together in New Vision.
Émigré architects built some stunning modernist buildings like the 1ZB radio studios, the first really modern building in Auckland from where Uncle Scrim’s inspirational radio talks were broadcast. It was unfortunately demolished in 1990. Still standing are the Parnell baths.
Frederick Newman, an architect and engineer was a refugee from Vienna who had worked extensively on social housing projects in his own country. So he had the necessary expertise to design the first block of state flats in Auckland, a 7 storey block of 44 apartments in Symonds St which was completed in 1947. Although they were not luxury flats and were designed for ordinary wage earners he took great care to ensure that they both looked good and felt good to live in.
Newman was a visionary with a social conscience. He predicted that New Zealand cities would grow. To meet the demands of a rising population high-quality social housing would be needed and should be affordable to all. It would no longer be possible to house all people in medium density areas and high blocks of flats would be necessary.
But rather than just being purely functional, such flats should also be places that a family would feel at home in as well as being aesthetically pleasing and harmoniously integrated with their environment.
His wise words have become very relevant recently as Auckland faces its housing crisis
Strangers Arrive is a thought-provoking book. Reading the stories of these emigres made me think about the refugees who are arriving at present. How can we best make them feel welcome and create opportunities for them to settle in and leave their mark.
Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930-1980 by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press, $75).
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveller, writer & passionate home cook