Becoming Modern

The paintings of Flora Scales

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Flora Scales, 1901, aged 14, mounted side saddle on “Brunette”. Photo: Bidwill family album.

A photograph of Flora Scales: she’s 14, laughing in a bowler hat, a whip in her right hand, reins in another, mounted side-saddle on a horse called Brunette. The year is 1901. Given her clear delight, it’s not surprising that, along with cattle, she drew and painted horses: sun dappled in fields, their heads drooping, resting, pulling drays. It took her a while to discover modernism; her youthful pictures, filled with nature, peace and golden light, are in thrall to French painting – the Barbizon and Impressionists Schools – and could have been created decades earlier. But then, suddenly, in 1915, amidst the bucolic imaginings, something happens: she paints a family on a beach. The picture is now lost, and only one photograph of it exists, but it’s startlingly different to her earlier work. Two women – formed of smudges and tones – in coats and wide-brimmed hats sit on the sand, facing away from the sea. In front of them are two small children, also in hats. Atmosphere supplants detail; the figures are relaxed, unposed, in the midst of talking, playing; their faces are less distinct than their clothes. The still sea is a pale, silvery blue; the same colour as the limpid sky. One of the women’s yellow coat hums like a sun in the centre of the composition. It appears to have been painted quickly, to capture a mood, a particular gesture, the quality of light. Paint has been employed to create a snapshot. The young equestrienne was becoming modern.  

Flora Scales was born in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, 24 May 1887, the second-born child in a family of five children. Her early life was one of privilege: her parents gave her a good education – she attended the Canterbury College School of Art, Christchurch, from 1903-4 – and supported her creative ambitions. In 1908 she travelled to London where she studied at the conservative Frank Calderon School of Animal Painting. There’s no record of her visiting Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions in 1910 and 1912 which, given the direction her work was to take, she surely would have been fascinated by. When World War I broke out, Flora’s two younger brothers enlisted; both were killed. The world had gone to hell. No wonder artists were hungry for new ways of representing it – and living in it.    

For the next seven years, Scales entered her work into 31 exhibitions; she must have been working incessantly. Everything changed in 1919 when the artist’s father abandoned his wife in order to marry his much younger secretary. Along with her mother Gertrude, sister Marjorie and niece Patience, Scales moved to Nelson to avoid the fall-out from the scandal. In a stroke, the women’s security was upended. They were poor; they moved out of their home in Wellington, grew strawberries and apples. Flora worked as a cook and Marjorie as a lady’s maid; later, they found employment in a canning factory. But still, Flora found time to paint: a landscape with a meandering river, ablaze with a flash of sunlight; a road near Rotorua, flanked by moody approximations of blue trees; a farm landscape, dissolving into blocky shapes of dusty pink. The basic tenets of her work were all here: although creatively ambitious, she worked on a small scale, and possessed an acute sensitivity to colour and tone. While her subjects were conventional – landscapes, still lives, portraits – her approach was anything but.

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Flora Scales, Untitled [Landscape with Meandering River] [BC126], c. 1920-1929, oil on canvas on board, 220 x 250mm

In 1928, at 41, Scales bought a third-class ticket to Europe. Via London, she arrived in Paris, intent on devoting her life to art. Within a few days of her arrival, she had met a four-year-old child, Boris Kalachnikoff. A future artist, educator and set-designer, he was playing on the Boulevard de Port-Royal and took Flora home to meet his family. Scales became his godmother and remained close to him for the rest of her life. The same year, Scales’s father died and left her a legacy, which granted her a small income. Still hungry to learn, she enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, which she found ‘too dark and stuffy’1 and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, which was ‘all students and smoke’.2 For three summers, at various times alongside fellow New Zealanders Maude Burge, Gwen Knight and Frances Hodgkins, Scales joined the modernist artist and teacher Hans Hofmann’s school in the South of France. In 1915, he had founded his Schule für Bildende Kunst (School of Fine Arts) in Munich – one of the first to espouse modern art – in order to build on ideas developed by Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinksy, whose influential 1912 essay ‘Towards the Spiritual in Art’ proposed the idea that in order to express abstract truths, art need not be representational. ‘Colour’, he wrote, ‘is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.’3 Hofmann’s declared aim was to give the student:

…the freeing, clarifying experience of contact with a spiritual discipline achieved through a life in art; to awaken rhythmic, plastic feeling, to emphasize the necessity of individual, empathic expression on a living, plastic basis as opposed to the dead formulae of academic teaching, and to remove every limitation except those actually inherent in the medium or derived from the format.4

Like Kandinsky and Cézanne, Hofmann believed that ‘the art of painting cannot consist of mere objective rendering of Nature’;5 for him, colour could be used for expressive, not descriptive, means, and the space between objects was as charged with energy as the objects themselves. He was, however, adamant that each artist must arrive at their own conclusions through close observation and experimentation – something that chimed with Scales. Marjorie de Lange recorded in the early 1980s that Scales ‘admits that Cézanne was her best loved painter but is careful to tell me that she didn’t copy him. That also applies to her love for Picasso. She wants to be considered as a painter who does it her way.’6

In 1931, Hofmann had accepted an invitation to teach at the University of California’s summer art session. He then taught in Munich from autumn 1931 until spring 1932, when he fled Nazism permanently for the United States. He opened schools in New York and Provincetown, which were instrumental in the development of Abstract Expressionism. The tenets of his teaching travelled far and wide. In 1932, Flora Scales exhibited in the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts Autumn exhibition in Wellington. Her (now lost) painting St Tropez was described by the critic for The Evening Post as achieving ‘an extraordinary kaleidoscopic effect with splashes of colour’.7 Later that year, she travelled back to Europe with her cousin, Constance Hamersley and enrolled in Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts in Munich, which was being run by the artist Edmund Kinzinger. In her old age, Scales recalled that he

… gave me new ideas for instance to have direction – this was new to me – to see one thing behind another. You see things from one side of the canvas then you go to the other side and see it from another point of view.8

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Flora Scales, Untitled [Pink Tree, Village and Bay] [BC015], c. 1931-1932, oil on canvas on board, 344 x 438mm

Scales’s sketchbook from the early 1930s bears witness to her restless processing of Hofmann and Kinzinger’s ideas: it’s full of swift, sparse drawings of objects, buildings and the sea, overlaid or broken down with grids, arrows, lines and scribbled observations examining what she is looking at and how it might be represented. Nature, she realised, was best employed as a painterly prompt, a stimulation to the senses and to the imagination; imitation was futile. She abandoned traditional perspective and committed to forgetting the subject ‘and think only of the painting’.9 The results speak for themselves. In the gorgeous Untitled [Two Green Trees] (c.1931-2), hard colours thaw in the bright sunlight. Subtle tonal shifts drift across the surface; shadows are formed of rich purples and greens, alleviated by flashes of ochre and yellow. Details – of the trees, the distant water, a glimpse of a terracotta roof – dissolve at the threshold of legibility. The painting is at once abstracted and deeply evocative of the heat haze of a summer’s day. Similarly, in Untitled [Pink Tree, Village and Bay] (1931), conventional scale has been abandoned: the dominant tree of the title is rendered in loose, rapid brushstrokes, while the clutter of small houses jostle for attention, like scattered children’s building blocks.

Decades later, Scales explained her process:

Every spot of oil has to be placed and weighed, treated mentally – everything has to be done deliberately. But still you never know what is going to come. You can’t tell until you put a colour on and see it in relation to its neighbour what modifications and adjustments would be needed to get the required effect.10

Scales stayed in Munich until June 1933, moved to Paris and then New Zealand. In 1934, she was sought out by the young artist Toss Woollaston, who later wrote of the profound influence Scales’s freedom from the constraints of perspective or naturalism had on his work: ‘The violence of this release from convention and construction made me feel like a prisoner who had just broken the ropes he had been bound by.’11 After four meetings, however, Scales brought their meetings to an abrupt end, as she was offended by Woollaston’s perception of her as a mentor, not a fellow artist. Despite their falling out, the young artist persuaded the Suter Art Society to include Scales’s work in their spring exhibition. They did, and it resulted in ‘an uproar of criticism’.12 In the same year, a black-and-white photograph was published in the Northern Advocate of a group of paintings hung at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington. Three works by Flora Scales are visible: Drapery, Still Life Group and Group. Whilst it’s hard to see the details, and, of course, the colour, the compositions fizz with life: a restless jostling, sinuous lines, a detail of a guitar and jug, leap off the page.

In 1935, Scales returned to London and then Paris.

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Flora Scales, Port of Mousehole at Sunset [BC026], 1951, oil on board, 250 x 353mm

Throughout her life, Flora Scales was an inveterate traveller and student. Although she was an accomplished painter and almost 50, she once again enrolled to study, this time at the Académie Ranson, where she was taught by the radical modernist Roger Bissière, who was to become famous for his abstracted landscapes, and whose students included Louise Bourgeois. Despite the imminent war, Scales stayed in Paris. In 1940, she was arrested and interned in a camp at Besançon; after six months, she was moved to another camp at Vittel for 22 months. Luckily, it was, in Scales’s words, ‘a happy time’; she attended bible classes and was fed well by the Red Cross.13 When she was released, she lived in Paris and although she had little to eat and was frequently cold, she had access to paint and canvas. However, she was devastated to discover that a large amount of her work, which she had stored in Paris, had been plundered or lost. After liberation in 1944, she was flown back to England, where she joined her sister, mother and other family members in Surrey. Flora became her mother’s carer until she died in 1948; she moved to Cornwall, where a great niece wrote how appalled she was by the lack of comfort with which Flora lived her life.14 And yet, notwithstanding her deprivations, the paintings Flora Scales made around this time display a great vivacity, intellectual rigour and a heightened sensitivity to her environment. In one of her most beautiful paintings, Port of Mousehole at Sunset (1951), the sun – a fiery, burnt orange ball – sets over the sea. The sky is a study in yellow tones, the concentrated landscape a choppy blue-and-green approximation. Figuration here hovers at the edge of abstraction. Untitled [Mousehole Cornwall 3] (1950-51), made around the same time, is a testament to Scales’s ability to evoke a sense of both place and infinity: a swirling composition of yellows and blues, diluted with watery light punctuated by a small dark boat and a pulley, hints at a cosmic journey to come.

The following years were marked by hard work and frugality. Barbi de Lange notes that Scales’s ‘lack of material encumbrances became more marked through her life’ and that ‘she seems to have carried her world in one small, cardboard suitcase’.15 Being an artist is difficult enough, but to be a female artist at a time when most art historians ignored your existence, museums weren’t buying your work and few, if any, commercial galleries represented you, must have been unimaginably tough. From our 21st century perspective, it’s extraordinary that despite living for decades in Europe, Flora Scales never exhibited, nor sold, her work there. Thankfully, the hard graft was alleviated by summers in France spent at the home of Boris Kalachnikoff and his wife Christiane. He remembered how thirsty Scales was for knowledge, and how deeply she drank from the achievements of her predecessors.

In Paris she often went to the Luxembourg Museum of Modern Art. There she admired the ‘fauves’, Bonnard, Matisse, the impressionist museum of the Jeu de Paume at the Tuileries, where she spent long moments in front of Lola de Valence by Manet, Olympia. At the Louvre: the Pisanellos, the Italian primitives, the Venus in the Mirror by Velázquez of which she often used to look at the reproduction – she was surrounded by postcards, her imaginary museum where she passionately consulted the teachings of Tintoretto, Veronese, Goya, Michelangelo. The great ones – van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, which she avidly took in.16

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Flora Scales, Portrait 2 [BC065], c. 1968, oil on canvas, 350 x 270mm

In 1959-60, in her mid-70s, Scales once again became a student, enrolling in Heatherley’s School of Art in London. Some of her paintings of the time are as intense as fever dreams. The jewel-like Untitled [Bry-sur-Marne, Street Scene with Flags] (1961), for example, is a rich study in turquoise and burnt umber. Choppy paint marks are smoothed into small, blurred figures and limp flags dwarfed by a suggestion of the street; the sky is indistinguishable from the foliage of a sea-green tree. In 1962, Scales painted a landscape in Bry-sur-Marne in which she all but abandons figuration: greens, blue and yellows, touched with pink and hints of violet, swirl and eddy on the surface of the canvas in hazy strokes. These paintings might be small – easily transportable and relatively inexpensive to make – but they contain worlds.

Around 1968, Scales painted three self-portraits: it’s startling, after so many landscapes, to see her face appear. In Portrait 1, a monochrome study in browns and ochres, she almost disappears: the suggestion of an eye, a line for a nose, a gash for mouth; the strongest mark is the ‘v’ of her top. In Portrait 2, she springs to life, emerging from a yellow – possibly sunlit – background. The blue of her clothes is matched by the ribbon in her hair. Her head is cocked, she glances to her left, the white of her eyes vivid. In Portrait 3, she’s fading fast; the details of her face, filled with light, are dissolving. 

For Scales, like so many avant-garde artists of the 20th century, the studio was a laboratory: a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers, far more than the sum of their parts, were objects to experiment with. Around 1970, in her mid-80s, she painted one of her most extraordinary works, Still Life with Oranges. It’s a picture that’s as fresh today as the day she created it: the fruit seems to float, unconstrained, across a riotously colourful ground: a rough crimson triangle, smears of green below a blazing yellow and ochre sky. In the minimal, intense Jar with Flowers (1974), Scales clearly scratched into the picture’s surface, a lingering testament to her visceral commitment to mark-marking. Only the work’s title tethers it to a figurative realm. Nothing here is complacent: even in her old age, Scales was questioning assumptions, resisting simple solutions. She knew that each painting requires its own discovery.

In 1972, Scales lived in Dunedin and then Auckland. In 1975, Colin McCahon curated a Flora Scales solo show, titled Helen F. V. Scales, which included 43 paintings, at the Auckland City Art Gallery; it then travelled to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui and Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington. In 1976, aged 89, she again travelled to France. In 1977, she came back to New Zealand for good. Three years later, she painted a series of portraits and self-portraits: images in which the head, the site of vision and imagination, is visualised as a complex, contradictory thing, bony yet ephemeral, all-seeing, with eyes that are shaded. To live, and to create artworks in response to living, is, the artist makes clear, never a straightforward process. In 1985, Flora Scales died; she was 97. Boris Kalachnikoff was named as sole beneficiary of her Estate. ‘Painting’, he said, ‘was her refuge, her passion, her reason – her intelligence’.17

1 Flora Scales in conversation with Janet Paul, Rotorua, New Zealand, 27 March 1979
2 Ibid.
3 Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular, Trans. W.T.H. Sadler, Barakaldo Books, 2020, Kindle Edition
4 Prospectus for Hans Hofmann’s Summer Course at St. Tropez, French Riviera, July, August, September 1929
5 Ibid.
6 Flora Scales to Marjorie de Lange, 1982-1983, Word Pictures by Marjorie de Lange
7 The Evening Post, Thursday 2 June 1932, p.9
8 Letter from Marjorie de Lange to Barbi de Lange, undated, 1982, Word Pictures by Marjorie de Lange
9 The Notebooks of Marjorie de Lange recording conversations with Flora Scales, 1982-1983
10 The Notebooks of Marjorie de Lange recording conversations with Flora Scales, 1982-1983
11 Toss Woollaston, handwritten essay supplied to B de Lange, 1992
12 Sir M.T. Woollaston Unpublished Autobiographical Notes 1991, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
13 Flora Scales in conversation with Janet Paul, Rotorua, New Zealand, 27 March 1979
14 Diana Zaharopoulos (nee Westacott, then Mills), in a letter to Barbi de Lange, 12 November 1983
15 Email from Barbi de Lange to the author, 29 June 2022
16 Boris Kalachnikoff, An accompanied solitude, 1991
17 Boris Kalachnikoff correspondence with B. de Lange, 7 May 1985