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Great Abstract Artists | Louise Henderson

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Learning about artists and their lives can be as interesting, and in some cases, more interesting than the artwork they produce. I'm going to write a series of blogs of some of the better and less known abstract artists, to show how their work has both influenced, and been influenced in the grand scheme of art.

For this week I am going to start with a painter who although born in Paris in 1902, lived many years in New Zealand. Her work evolved as she practiced in Paris, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and the Middle East. She worked alongside many of NZs great names painters and poets like Allen Curnow, Rita Angus, Colin McCahon and Douglas Lilburn but until recently - with a travelling art exhibition in 2019 from Auckland to Christchurch and accompanied book, she has not really been a household name and given the credit she deserves. The exhibition called From Life, covered early watercolours of the Canterbury landscape, abstracted still-life compositions, sensuous Cubist representations of the female figure and lyrical explorations of the New Zealand bush. It culminated with the monumental series The Twelve Months, an ambitious undertaking that Henderson completed when she was 85 years old.

Louise Henderson 1902 - 1994

From 1908 - 1921 Louise completed schools and studied in Paris, eventually graduating as a designer. She was employed 1922 to 1927 for the weekly journal Madame, to draw blueprints and write articles on embroidery design and interior decoration. She often spent time at art galleries and was authorised to study in the museum and library of the Musée des arts decoratifs.

It was in Paris 1920, where Louise met Hubert Henderson, a New Zealand graduate from Cambridge University at a museum show. He returned to New Zealand and took up a position teaching at Christchurch Boys High School. Hubert wrote proposing marriage, which Louise accepted, but her parents would not allow their only daughter to travel to New Zealand alone as a single woman. To satisfy her parents, she was married to Henderson by proxy in a civil ceremony at the British embassy in Paris. She left for New Zealand in Feb 1925 and on 30 April, Louise and Hubert celebrated their wedding at a church ceremony in Christchurch. They were to have one daughter.

Louise Henderson in her Auckland Studio 1950s

As her parents didn't want her to be an artist. Louise enjoyed the freedom that her new life offered. She began to paint landscapes, showing a progressive interest in form and structural unification by interrelating shapes. She did some teaching – French, art and craft – and raised her family. Her daughter, Diane was born in 1933. Henderson's parents, Daniel and Lucie, emigrated two years later and imported French art supplies into Christchurch.

Arthurs Pass circa 1940

Her Canterbury paintings of hills, gorges and architectural forms blend observation with the visual language and aesthetic theories of the European moderns – Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Braque. Her movement away from the topographical view of the landscape was shared by other local artists such as Alfred Cook, Rita Angus, Roland Hipkins and Christopher Perkins.

Plain & Hills 1936

Rita Angus Cass 1936

In 1941 the family moved to Wellington. where her focus was more on needle work and teaching, including revising the needlework syllabus for schools. She also completed her BA at Victoria University. She had less time to paint, but did have two exhibitions. In 1948 she visited the studio of Auckland painter John Weeks and began to correspond with him. From this point on her painting underwent a marked change. Her structures and forms were less naturalistic, and more concerned with dividing form in a cubist manner.

Henderson was one of the first New Zealand artists to commit herself to an overtly modern style.

Still Life with Arum Lilies 1948

1950 brought about another move to Auckland and Louise became a full-time painter. She attended classes at the Elam School of Art, but felt frustrated with the conservative teaching methods. By contrast she found encouragement from John Weeks and began working in his studio. Henderson’s painting of this period shows a move away from pictorialism and towards intellectualised abstract forms and non-representational elements. Experimenting widely with media and approach, she moved from watercolours to oil on canvas and paper, tempera on board and works on glass.

Cubist Still Life 1954

Hubert Henderson encouraged Louise’s career as an artist, building a studio in their home at Epsom, to enable her to continue full-time painting. During 1950 - 1951 her work was exhibited in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington and then a bit step to London in 1952.

In 1952, encouraged by John Weeks and supported by her husband, Louise spent a year studying art in Paris. There she was taken by an exhibition of works by the cubist Jean Metzinger. She made contact, and was accepted by Metzinger as an artist at his teaching studio. Louise studied figurative cubism for a year. Cubist methods such as logical construction of form, multiple viewpoints and tilting planes characterise her work in Paris.

Portrait of Betty Curnow 1954

In 1956 the Henderson's travelled to Beirut, where Hubert worked for UNESCO as an advisor on compulsory education. Living among new cultures allowed Louise to develop her figurative and architectural abstractions. From 1956 to 1958 she visited galleries in Europe. Her drawings and paintings from the Middle East were exhibited in London in 1958 and in Sydney on her way back to New Zealand in 1959. The 1950s concluded with Louise Henderson a confident exemplar of abstract painting in New Zealand.

In 1963 Hubert Henderson died. Louise was devastated. She put away her brushes saying she would never paint again, but later that year began a series of large-scale abstract expressionist outpourings of her grief, in the 41 canvases of the ‘Elements – air and water’ series. She accompanied these canvases to Europe.

After returning to New Zealand, Henderson turned her attention to tapestry design and production. The 1970s were marked by extensive exhibiting of paintings of bush, Coromandel landscape and urban Polynesians, and paintings from Rarotonga and Greenland.

Garden 1977

She remarried 1986 in Kaikohe to Georg Lücke, a Danish-born ship’s electrician, 27 years her junior, who she had met on her return trip to NZ in 1967. She continued to exhibit widely in the 1980s. In 1987 she completed her series ‘The twelve months’. Expressing her sense of place, these 12 large canvases (one for each month) were a triumphant outpouring of strength and determination from the diminutive French artist, combining the sensibility of the European eye and mind with the lived experience of the New Zealand land and lifestyle.

Twelve Months - July 1987

In the 1990 exhibition Two Centuries of New Zealand Landscape Art, at the Auckland City Art Gallery, Henderson’s work ‘The Lakes (triptych)’ took pride of place. She continued to paint vigorously, and travelled to Hokianga where her husband had established a paulownia plantation. She moved there permanently in 1991.

The Lakes 1965

In June 1993 Louise Henderson was made a DBE. On 27 June the following year, after a short illness, she died in Auckland, survived by her husband and daughter.

If you'd like to know more about Louise Henderson, I can recommend the book Louise Henderson From Life. s a solid hard-back with lovely large images. It was produced to accompany the exhibitions at Auckland and Christchurch Art Galleries. It covers:

The Christchurch Years

Canterbury and Wellington 1929-1947

The Textiles

Cubism 1947-1959

Return and Transition

Structures and People 1956-1959

In Pursuit of Universality

Elements 1964-1965

I Follow Unruly Nature

Bush 1970-1991

Lost and Found

The Twelve Months 1987

A Personal View

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