A productive refusal

by Julia Holderness and Thomasin Sleigh

Published 2023

Thomasin Sleigh and Julia Holderness share an interest in the work of modernist women artists and how they are understood and interpreted in art history. Their research — writing and art practices, respectively — has, until now, been separate and concurrent. The invitation to contribute an essay for florascales.com sparked a conversation, collaborative close reading, and an imagining of Flora Scales’ work and life.


Flora Scales, Untitled [Basilica and Lighthouse, St Tropez] [BC020], 1939, oil on canvas on board, 280 x 335mm

A pension, the house of Madame Coccoz, 76 rue Sibilli, Place des Lices, St Tropez, France, October 1931.

Julia Holderness: We stand outside in the warm air, near a small tree. We can hear their voices from the verandah nearby. Some sort of outdoor restaurant at the rear of the house. There is the smell of fish cooking in butter. There is probably a basket of cut bread and red wine on the table. New Zealand painters Maud Burge, Gwen Knight and Flora Scales are sharing a meal together. Frances Hodgkins was invited, but prefers to spend the evenings in her own pension, which is a little further East. We decide, speaking softly and exchanging smiles, that one of the women at the table feels relieved that Frances didn’t come. She would need to be very attentive to the conversation, careful with her opinions of other artists. She can relax now.

Small landscape with figures seated around a table in a courtyard. Hues suggest a dusk setting.

Maud and George rent their own villa, and Flora is often invited there for supper. It feels satisfying for her to have the other women here this evening. As usual they compare notes on where they painted that morning, and where they might arrange themselves next. Flora wants to get up behind the town, a wider, higher view than she had today. Maud is enjoying the tight views to the sea from the streets near the port.

Inky blue next to rusty ochres.

The two-storeyed pension is pink and shuttered. Madame Coccoz rents several rooms for a couple of francs each day, and this includes two meals. Flora tells the others that while the room is basic, it is comfortable and has a view of Place des Lices below. She is also grateful that it includes a writing desk.

Six elms in a curving line, one is smaller. Lower half of canvas.

This is the evening that Gwen urges Flora to return to Munich for a longer period of tuition at Hans Hofmann’s school. We can’t make out all of their conversation, but later I wonder how Flora feels about this advice, this position of guidance her friend assumes? Perhaps it is just us who feel irritated.

Mounds of earth in the foreground, drawn away.

The conversation stops, and Flora thinks now about the drawings she made earlier today. Stacked shapes, various angles, edges of buildings, overlapping planes. She will take them tomorrow and attach them near the canvas. She will enjoy opening out the skyline, bringing in the hills across the water.

A sloping path, green brush marks.

We start walking away, off to the left where there is lots of undergrowth, but also where a narrow road leads around the bottom of a bank. Hopefully we can find her position tomorrow morning, glimpse the beginnings of her picture.

Thomasin Sleigh: I can see Flora taking up her spot the next morning, with her paper and pencils, and beginning to work. It’s so interesting to walk around France with Flora and look out at the landscape through her eyes.

Only one drawing has survived from Flora’s work here in the 1930s; the rest were lost or looted during WWII. We’re lucky we have it though, because it means we can look at the difference between her work and a similar drawing by Frances Hodgkins from ten years earlier. In Flora’s sketch you can see where she is anticipating angular blocks of colour, in the walls of the buildings, and the hills rising behind them. Frances’ work is filled with her curves and speckles, those highly patterned surfaces that are so characteristic of her work.

We have to extrapolate, I guess, because so much of Flora’s work from this period is lost. Perhaps this also encourages us to look closer and spend longer with what remains?

There were so few opportunities during Flora’s lifetime for people to spend time with her work. In 1974, her first solo exhibition in Aotearoa was organised at the private home of Mrs Joan Williams in Hawkes Bay. I’ve tried to find reference to this show in the local papers but had no luck. What did Flora make of this recognition of her work? If we looked in through the windows of Mrs Williams’ living room, what would we have seen?


Flora Scales, Untitled [Cubist drawing, St Tropez] [BC099], c.1934, charcoal on paper, 315 x 413mm

The home of Mrs Joan Williams, Havelock North, New Zealand, April 1974.

TS: Look. This house has been tidied and cleaned in preparation for the exhibition in the evening; the floors are swept, and the sideboards dusted. It is autumn, and the evening light of the setting sun has changed; it shines, golden, through the textured glass of the front door. From our spot outside the living room window, we can see the flat path of light it makes on the glossy, just-mopped hallway floor.

The living room furniture has been pushed back to make space for a semicircle of easels that display large boards, each with small paintings attached. A woman walks in from the hallway. She makes a tiny adjustment to the angle of one of the easels, and leans in to look at a painting: a landscape with candyfloss-pink trees.

The woman looks up suddenly and goes back into the hall. The guests are arriving. Here they come into the living room, two women, first, with the host, tentative, all with a glass of sherry. They look at the paintings and nod, smile. Their mouths move but we can’t hear them.

Here come two more people, and another group. The living room is filling up. The sun has set and the host moves around the rooms to switch on all the lamps and lights. We stand outside in the dark, but inside, the house thrums and glows, filled with people and noise.

We see the crowd in the living room make space for an older woman; she comes into the room, elegant and composed in a long wool skirt and a cream silk blouse. This is the artist Flora Scales, and these are her paintings.

Later, we see the guests leave the house, get in their cars, and drive away, their headlights tiny in the big, dark night. We turn back to the bright living room window. The host stands alone in the room with the paintings. Flora has gone home, too. The exhibition will stand in the living room for a week. People will come, and look, and leave. The following year, 1975, Colin McCahon and his colleague Brenda Gamble will stage a solo exhibition of Flora’s work at the Auckland City Art Gallery. But why is my eye instead drawn here, to this house in the Hawkes Bay, to this window, to this living room, where a woman, now, flicks off the light?​​

JH: It’s the same for me, Thom. I think this sort of exhibition is interesting because it foregrounds a relational artistic subjectivity where community, friendships and gestures of support count for a lot. I'm interested in exhibition spaces that are less sanctioned by formal art history and offer us a different view.

TS: Flora’s Auckland City Art Gallery show traveled to several other galleries around Aotearoa, including Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington, where a number of her works were sold. Here, her painting edges into the formal visual arts discourse and, in fact, a short piece of writing about Flora appears in the first edition of Art New Zealand, in 1976.

I love the acerbic glance of the woman, painted by Raymond McIntyre, on the cover of the inaugural edition of this important magazine. She appears so self-contained and casually judgmental. I think that she would have something to say about the contents of this edition.

A series of short reviews of exhibitions around the country opens the magazine, an editorial convention that continues today. From Wellington, Neil Rowe reports that, “One of the more extraordinary stories in the history of New Zealand art is that of the rediscovery of eighty-eight-year-old Miss Helen F. V. Scales (better known as Flora Scales) after a forty years disappearance. Over this period her importance in an historical context has become considerable.” Flora is important, Rowe writes, but not for her work, or her thinking, but her importance “in an historical context.”1

What does this mean? Flora studied in Munich with Hans Hofmann, Rowe continues, and, on a return trip to Aotearoa, shared some of her notes and thoughts with a young Toss Woollaston. This is why importance is conferred on her: because she tutored Woollaston, the “important” artist.

Rowe concludes his article, “Hans Hoffman [sic] has been a seminal influence in post-war American art, and on the New York school and Jackson Pollock in particular. That his theories and techniques radically influenced one of our own important painters is entirely due to Flora Scales.” Hans Hofmann is important. Jackson Pollock is important. Toss Woollaston is important. But at the centre of Rowe’s venn diagram of influence, is Flora, a conduit of information, but not a point of interest in herself.


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

It’s not hard to expose the patriarchy of this short piece of writing (there are so many pieces of low-hanging fruit, “her first one-man show in a public art gallery”, Rowe writes), but what is perhaps more interesting, are the questions this piece throws up about art history, knowledge and artistic influence.

“Influence” is the bread and butter of art history. In the collection of Flora’s papers, works and associated research, now held at the Alexander Turnbull Library, she has kept notes made by her godson Boris Kalachnikoff that map out, into neat pathways, the work of “les pères de peinture moderne”2: Cezanne influences Braque; van Gogh influences Picasso, and then the arrows point onwards to Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Yves Klein. An artist sees another artist’s work and they learn, copy and adapt.

But does influence operate differently for modernist women artists, who are anomalous in the field of Western painting? The passing of information is haphazard; education and criticism is difficult to attain; and art by other women that might connect or communicate is hard to find. Can you see others, when you and your work is not seen?

Woollaston and Scales’s work is intertwined in Aotearoa’s art history, from the inaugural edition of Art New Zealand and onwards. There is rarely a biography of Flora, or a gallery label that doesn’t mention their interaction. But, after four sessions, where Flora shared Hofmann’s teaching with Woollaston, she closed the door on him. She was later quoted as not considering herself responsible for Woollaston’s style, “I was not a painting teacher at the time of those lessons.”3

Flora was forty-seven in 1934. She had been studying, looking and painting her whole adult life, to very little acclaim, or even interest from curators or galleries. With a young Woollaston knocking at her door, asking questions, did she feel societal pressures forcing her into the role of the teacher, forcing her down in the blank space of Neil Rowe’s venn diagram? So she stopped talking, kept the door closed. Such interventions were perhaps what was required, as a woman, to carve out the space and seriousness necessary to make art in the middle of the twentieth century.

JH: Your idea about Flora shutting the door reminds me of a feminist proposition developed by Australian artist Alex Martinis Roe with feminist curator Helena Reckitt. They call it a “Productive Refusal” and write that “saying “no” is often something we find difficult to do…But…saying “no” can be a way to put a stop to destructive relational habits and patterns that maintain existing power dynamics.”4 Flora didn’t wish to serve a narrative, and her early feminist gesture can be observed as a way of participating differently. This is an intervention, just as you have identified.

​​​​In her 2019 Julie King Memorial lecture at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, curator Julia Waite talked about Scales sharing her learning from her European art tuition with a young Woollaston in very clear terms. Waite argued that in spite of this service or influence, Scales was “reduced to a shadowy figure.” For example, Waite notes that Scales had only a “bit part in Toss Woollaston’s narrative of advancing modernism” in Francis Pound’s 2009 seminal book The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity 1930 – 1970.5

Waite titled her lecture “Exiles and Expatriates: Modern Women and States of Unbelonging”, and I am interested in how Waite conceives of a lack of recognition within the canon as an almost physical state of untethering. Waite then cited American feminist art historian Linda Nochlin’s observation that “exile has often provided stimulation and inspiration to the painter; especially the woman artist who finds herself freed from the conventional boundaries of feminine identity in her country of origin.”6 However, as Waite points out, while mentioning the practice of Scales, “living abroad also estranged women artists from their national art history,” creating a state of “unbelonging.”7


Two pages from Untitled [Loose Leaf Pages] [BC112] titled 'Les pères de peinture moderne' by Boris Kalachnikoff

In my own art practice, I work with a fabricated, historical artist named Florence Weir. She has a somewhat transient, expatriate existence, and this has several consequences. Living and working abroad is a naturalistic biographical device for her construction, reflecting many women artists from Aotearoa whom Waite, in her lecture, said, “had to leave to learn their trade, and Paris and London were where one went to learn how to be an artist in the company of one’s peers.”8 Florence reflects broader ideas about the construction of transient subjects, and notions of belonging, exile and nationalism. Her being away, being elsewhere, accounts on one level for her lost art-historical presence, but it also critiques it, and aims to draw attention to other overlooked names such as Flora Scales.9

Florence Weir is often in two places at once, sometimes at home, sometimes abroad. I feel that Flora's life has this quality too. Florence’s invented life and work is intentionally murky: timeframes often do not add up and timelines overlap. My project resists urges to ‘solidify’ and ‘pinpoint’ a seamless narrative, or a neat timeline, acknowledging instead that histories are fragmented, messy, leaky: they are often inconsistent. Yet with Flora, I keep returning to the timeline, the tempo of her life, piecing together her movements, the places she returned to. It isn’t that I desire a chronology, a linear narrative, or to work it all out. But it is compelling to absorb this remarkable life noted out across dates and locations.

TS: You’re right, Julia, Flora’s movement back and forth from New Zealand to Europe throughout her life means she’s hard to track and frustrates the history-making progression of formal art history. I’m also interested in the way the website disrupts a linear understanding of Flora’s work, too; it shows the gaps and missing works, and the lack of discourse around her work in the time it was shown. The timeline’s information architecture has a horizontal and vertical flow, and encourages users to move across and through Flora’s story and work. It’s easy to bounce from one work to another, and the linear timeline is interpolated with wider political and social events, and all the familial and social impacts that affected her life.

JH: Like you Thomasin, I've spent hours on the Flora Scales website and I am thinking about this particular research experience, this way of forming knowledge. It's fragmentary, filtered, layered and fluid. I slip from one scene to another via paintings, quotes, captions, sketchbooks and diagrams. And then I pause and there are images in my head: a dinner at a pension in St Tropez; a quiet, measured chat with Hodgkins; a museum visit to see the Fauves. Flora slips away. She’s on another trip to Europe, one I haven’t quite registered before on the timeline. Sometimes I am looking in overview mode, at other times I am up close to a detail. From Mediterranean landscapes and table tops to a cool wind on the English coastline. Multiplying views. I click links and use the search bar to uncover new pages, new threads. Sometimes I read something, and then can’t find it again several days later.

St Tropez, “Port of Mousehole”, St Maxime, St Ives and Greniar. Exotic locations. Intriguing names and characters: Kalachnikoff, Hofmann and Kinzinger, “The Notebooks of M de Lange.” They sound like titles, chapter headings or film captions. Vivid scenes too: one of Flora’s oils on canvas was used to repair the underside of a chair! Later her godson draws it from memory, in bright felt-tip pens, the ‘nature morte disparue’. There are mysteries and gaps too: what happened on the island of Scilly? Who were the “idle, pretentious snobs” in Mousehole, and why did she “flee” from them? Are these locals or fellow artist visitors to the small port?10

I am interested in how all this affects how I understand Flora, and how I think about her subjectivity. I am often reading two texts at the same time. Broken up with views of her paintings: whole pictures and zoomed-in details. I am in and out of essays by Ruth, Barbi, Jennifer. Memories and texts about her relationships too: Marjorie, Gretchen, Boris. It is more than a monograph and there is no beginning or end. It feels like a novel or a biography, which, rather than formed through a fixed series of pages, inhabits a more shifting sequence. In privileging social contexts, details and presenting supplementary material, the website supports a relational and heterogenous understanding of selfhood. It offers possibilities and questions through multiple voices, traces and stories, and in this way its representation of Flora opposes a stable, fixed, singular historical view.


Flora Scales, Untitled [Mousehole Cornwall 3] [BC030], 1950–1951, oil on brown linen, 235 x 292mm

For me, it’s easy to conclude that Flora preferred the coastline along St Tropez to the Cornish coast in England. This is in part my own preference. I’ve been looking at her atmospheric, shimmering paintings from Mousehole, and the ochre colours suggest a quieter mood. I looked up images of the current-day Mousehole and saw the small beach she would have painted from. Popular with families, it looked sandy and a little bit pebbly, sloping very gently. I imagine the sea is grey, often dead flat.

Mousehole, England, 1951.

JH: Flora wears wool, even in the early English summer, and a headscarf: the wind today is unpleasant on her cheeks. She sits on a canvas tarpaulin, folded several times, to protect herself from the damp ground. There is a view out to a sea wall which she has captured several times, shifting its position across the paintings.

The yellow cottage she rents is bare and modest. Flora keeps it clean and neat, but changes up the arrangements on one side of the large round dining table. Bowls of fruit. Drawings. Newspaper clippings. Flowers in a vase. The room off the street has a small kitchen along one side, the dining table and some worn armchairs. At the back is the bathroom and a small bedroom. The days feel longer here. The cool wind often picks up in the afternoon, and by 3 o’clock she is usually back at the cottage for a quiet afternoon reading or drawing at the dining table. She avoids the shops in the centre, going out early if she needs to buy milk, bread and supper.

Flora looks out the window to the derrick and imagines it on the page as a series of fine, black lines. She hasn’t seen it used yet, hoisting up some boat in need of repair. She can see it now, a couple of men shouting underneath it. This is a much more solitary period. She misses the evenings she had in St Tropez. The company and conversations. She wonders what her paintings would look like if she was painting coastal scenes back home.

Flora’s Port of Mousehole at Sunset leaves me feeling much warmer about the Cornish coast. I love this painting of a warm, glowing evening, of possibilities. I am told that some of the beaches and coves in Cornwall have exquisite coloured waters, inviting like the Med.

TS: I love this painting, too, with its strange, flower-like sun hanging low in the sky. There’s romance in this sunset, but not of the usual kind. Boris Kalachnikoff is quoted, talking about this work, that the “empty spaces are treated as filled ones.”11

We worry (don’t we, Julia?) about Flora — where did she belong? In Mousehole? In St Tropez? In Auckland? And from what vantage point should her work be looked at? But perhaps she was adept at filling in the empty spaces of her life wherever she was — in Europe, or Aotearoa — and maybe it was her sustained commitment to painting that filled those spaces, and made her life varied and purposeful. Not an “unbelonging” then, but a “productive refusal”; the conscious making of a new space for herself and her art.


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

1 ‘Flora Scales’ by Neil Rowe, Art New Zealand, vol. 1 (1976), 9.
2 Notes written by Boris Kalachnikoff in Flora Scales’s papers, Untitled [Loose Leaf Pages] [BC112]. Les pères de peinture moderne translates to the fathers of modern painting.
3 Flora Scales quoted in a letter from Ron O’Reilly to Colin McCahon, 21 January 1974. Taken from notes written by Anne Kirker as part of her research for her publication New Zealand Women Artists: A Survey of 150 Years (Auckland, New Zealand: Reed Methuen, 1986), in Kirker's Papers, Ref no. MS-Papers-6412-06, Alexander Turnbull Library.
4 ‘Proposition #7: Productive Refusals developed with Helena Reckitt’ in Alex Martinis Roe, To Become Two: Propositions for Feminist Collective Practice, (Milan and Berlin: Archive Books, 2018), 199.
5 Julia Waite, unpublished lecture notes for “Exiles and Expatriates: Modern Women and States of Unbelonging”, her 2019 Julie King Memorial Lecture, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, New Zealand. Provided to the writer by Waite.
6 Linda Nochlin, "Art and the Conditions of Exile: Men/Women, Emigration/Expatriation", Poetics Today, Vol 17, no. 3 (1996), 317, quoted by Waite, lecture notes, “Exiles and Expatriates”.
7 Waite, lecture notes, “Exiles and Expatriates”.
8 Ibid.
9 In Waite, lecture notes, “Exiles and Expatriates”, Waite mentioned these artists, along with Helen Stewart, “women artists who trained in Europe…acknowledged for their role as agents of modernism who aided the transmission of information from centre to periphery. But I’d argue that we have yet to acknowledge the strength of their work beyond that of paintings that held a code for others.”
10 'An accompanied solitude' by Boris Kalachnikoff (January 1991).
11 Ibid.