Interview: Leonard Bell talks about Strangers Arrive

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, Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori 1840–1914 and In Transit: Questions of Home and Belonging in New Zealand Art. He is co-editor of Jewish Lives in New Zealand (2012). Leonard talks to NZ Booklovers about his latest book Strangers Arrive. 

Tell us a little about Strangers Arrive.

From the 1930s through to the 1950s, several thousand forced migrants, refugees from Nazism and displaced people after World War II, reached New Zealand from Europe. Among them were artists and writers, photographers and architects, whose European modernism radically reshaped the arts in this country.

Strangers Arrive concerns this highly talented group of emigrés, who were critical catalysts for change in New Zealand culture. They produced compelling  art, photography, writing about the arts, architecture and introduced new practices and ideas to this country.

They include photographers Irene Koppel, Frank Hofmann and Richard Sharell, artists Theo Schoon, Frederick Ost, Kees Hos and Tom Kreisler, architects Ilke Imi Porsolt, Frederick Newman, Helmut Einhorn  and Henry Kulka.

There is also a chapter on New Zealand-born expatriates (emigrés in reverse) James Boswell, Douglas Glass and Douglas MacDiarmid, whose art was crucially informed by their experiences of Continental European people and pictures

What inspired you to write this book?

Strangers Arrive is both a book on particular aspects of cultural history and a personal book. I teach art history at the University of Auckland. The standard histories of New Zealand art don’t pay much attention, with a few exceptions, to the artists, photographers and arts writers, who feature in Strangers Arrive. I have tried to give a new and different perspective on the visual arts and mid–late 20th century New Zealand, to show that the visual arts were much more diverse from the 1940s onwards, and that there were strong cosmopolitan and transnational currents in the visual arts here, in contrast to those artists concerned with New Zealand identity and making supposedly  distinctively ‘New Zealand’ art.

And there is a very personal dimension. Sylvia, my wife, is the daughter of refugees from Nazism, who arrived in Auckland from Czechoslovakia in late 1939. And one of my brothers also married the daughter of refugees, from Vienna, who got to New Zealand in 1939 too. Consequently  I met, talked with, became friends with many people from the same background, both first and second generation. ​I’ve learnt a lot from them.

There must have been a huge amount of research to write this book, how did you go about it?

About twenty years of research in archives, museums, art galleries, libraries, personal collections of various people, from periodicals from the period, books and manuscripts, as well as talking to people. It takes a lot of time.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

To write any book you have to be able to spend a lot of time by yourself. I work from voluminous notes, make rough drafts of chapters or sections of chapter, and then improve and refine them in subsequent drafts. Good and experienced editors help, as they certainly did with this book.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing Strangers Arrive?

Researching for, and writing, the book confirmed my prior belief that creative people, who came to New Zealand as refugees and displaced people, contributed enormously to cultural and social changes  and developments for the better in this country from the 1940s to the present day. So the book is a tribute to them too.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Writing a book is hard work. In particular, the copy-editing and footnoting processes can push  you towards the edge of derangement. When it was all finished I probably went to bed.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

That’s a difficult question. I’ve been an addictive reader from childhood, so there are a lot of them. This one is apt, I think: The House of Twenty Thousand Books (2014), by Sasha Abramsky, about his extraordinary grandparents, ‘who jostled two traditions – Jewish and Marxist – that intertwined in his growing up’ in London, and whose lives almost spanned the very turbulent 20th century. The quote is from Michael Ignatieff.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

My old and close friend, Francis Pound, also an art historian, died in October. He had nearly finished a book he had been working on for many years, on the New Zealand pioneer modernist and abstract painter, Gordon Walters (1919-1995). I will be helping Veronica, Francis’s daughter, complete the book and prepare it for publication. A leading publisher is also keen to get Francis’s Gordon Walters book out into the world.

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Karen McKenzie Karen McKenzie is a Director of NZ Booklovers. She has worked in book publishing for the past 17 years, as a publicist and also selling international rights. Karen is passionate about book publishing and enjoys working with authors to help them realise their dreams. She is also a published author of twelve books under the name ‘Karen McMillan’. More info at www.karenm.co.nz

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