A. Lois White

In the 1930s and 1940s Auckland artist A. Lois White painted a series of political and social commentaries which were inspired by her left-wing, anti-war sentiments. These images range from the pointed and hostile criticism of the commerce of war in War Makers (1937) to the light-hearted celebration of war’s end in Jubilation (1948).

White had studied at Elam School of Art under A.J.C. Fisher, head of school and a man with politically left ideals. When White became one of the teachers at Elam she joined an institution steeped in contemporary politics and staffed by lecturers who were actively involved with worker riots during the Depression, and with the rights of workers. Indeed, the Workers Educational Association (W.E.A.) had offices in the same building as Elam. A university for the working classes, the W.E.A. taught literature and history with a bias to the left. All of this had a significant effect of White, who used her art as a way to speak about the issues of the period.

Of War Makers, first exhibited in 1937, White wrote, ‘The main idea behind the composition in question is the injustice done to youth, by the decision of those older generation to have wars and send their sons to be slaughtered and maimed, while many grow fat on the proceeds. Financiers, money- grubbers, politicians, the thoughtless type of patriotism, are contributing factors which I have tried to suggest, with helpless youth being torn from equally helpless youth and home’.

It was a controversial painting, and not always understood by contemporary audiences. In part White’s point of view was shaped by her membership in the Methodist Church, which was vigorously debating the question of Pacifism in the 1930s. It has also been suggested that White’s painting, with its staged figures like puppets against a schematic back-drop, owes something to the People’s Theatre, a politically active group who performed agitprop productions filled with sketches, cabaret and revues commenting on politics and society.

War Makers (Auckland City Art Gallery)

As the war began in Europe, White continued to paint confronting images designed to challenge people’s conceptions. Civilised, shown in 1942, represented the effects of bombing in Europe – people dead and dying, their homes burning, their lives destroyed. Collapsed, painted in 1944, returns to the subject of War Makers, the wealthy industrialist with the support of a uniformed officer presiding over the suffering population. White’s civilian viewpoint was a strong alternative to the official paintings of the war, which were careful to minimise the realities of death in favour of a vision of life in the services that romanticised the choices of the men who had gone overseas to fight.

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Further Reading:

Nicola Green, By the Waters of Babylon: The Art of A. Lois White. Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery, 1993.

Nicola Green, ‘White, Anna Lois 1903 – 1984’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 URL: www.dnzb.govt.nz

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