Flora Scales' Flicker

by Luke Smythe

Published 2024

4 December 2023


fig. 1: William Frank Calderon, A Private Trial, 1890

 fig. 2: Flora Scales, Untitled[Two Clydesdale Horses and Rider], ca. 1917-20

In the late 1940s, a major change unfolded in Flora Scales’ art. Through a process of reduction and refinement she arrived, for the first time, at a style she could claim as her own: an amalgam of the work of Cézanne and Impressionism that she pushed toward the brink of abstraction. Rooted firmly in the late 19th century, but responsive to more recent developments, her postwar works bent the timeline of modernism back upon itself. The result was a form of Abstract Impressionism, which flickered back and forth between two centuries, much like the flickering of Scales’s elusive subjects as they dissolved into a haze of indistinction.


When Scales first took an interest in Impressionism in the mid-1910s, her rural scenes resembled those of William Calderon, with whom she had studied in London from 1908-1912. For a brief time following her studies she had also adhered to Calderon’s technique, but once back in New Zealand she had moved beyond it.

Calderon was a Naturalist painter, who in keeping with the tenets of that style, had steered a middle course between the clarity of academic painting and the looser, less definite approach of the Impressionists. As was typical for Naturalists, his palette relied heavily on earth tones, and he staged most of his scenes under clouded-over skies. Not so in the case of Scales, who soon embraced the softness of Impressionism, together with its more vivid palette, its sunlit staging, and its attentiveness to how colours are modified by changing atmospheric conditions.

Set Calderon’s A Private Trial (1890) [fig. 1] alongside Scales’ Untitled [Two Clydesdale Horses and Rider] (ca. 1917-20) [fig. 2] and these distinctions become readily apparent. Not only is the former more chromatically subdued, and its detailing a good deal more acute, but Calderon’s approach to modelling was also more conventional than Scales’. Using so-called ‘value’ shading, he generated highlights and shadows by blending the hue he wished to modify with white or black.1 Scales did not abandon this technique, but she combined it with the method of ‘colour’ shading, for which Impressionism was renowned. Recognising that perceptions of a colour can be altered by shifting light conditions and by other colours in the vicinity, Impressionists often rendered highlights and shadows in completely different hues. This device is evident throughout Scales’ image, but is perhaps most strikingly apparent in her treatment of her horse rider’s hat. Rather than use black to darken the hat’s white to grey, she opted for a vivid shade of blue picked up from the sky overhead and the clothing of the rider below. Likewise, with the belly and the shadows of the rider’s white horse: again avoiding grey, she rendered both in the colour of the earth. Staying true to value shading, Calderon ignored such effects.


fig. 3: Flora Scales, Untitled[Mediterranean Scene] 1, ca. 1931

fig. 4: Paul Cézanne, The Bay of Estaque Seen from the East (La Baie de l'Estaque vue de l'est), ca.1878-82, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York, USA. Anonymous gift in tribute to Edward Harris and in memory of H. R. Stirlin of Switzerland.

Scales concentrated on Impressionism throughout the 1920s, before exploring subsequent French modernist developments, most notably Fauvism and the work of Paul Cézanne. The impact of both was registered in works that she painted on the South Coast of France around 1930, of which Untitled [Mediterranean Scene] 1 (ca. 1931) [fig. 3] is typical.

In Cézanne’s view, the Impressionists had failed to endow the scenes they painted with sufficient solidity.2 To consolidate his own forms, he used a palette closer to that of Naturalism. He also shaded objects more extensively than the Impressionists, and limned his forms in black on occasion to increase their tangibility.3 In his views of L’Estaque from the 1880s [fig. 4], which Scales may have taken as a model, the dwellings appear more substantial than they would in an Impressionist work. Like Cézanne, Scales depicts houses as cleanly bounded, geometric volumes, and like Cézanne she loosens the constraints of single-point perspective: spatially, her painting feels credible, but there are slight variations in the viewpoints from which each house is shown. By virtue of her painting’s subject-matter, her palette overlaps with Cézanne’s, but only to a limited extent. His greys are nowhere to be found in her work, and the hints of red and green in Scales’ shadows introduce to her modelling an element of Fauvist colouration that was foreign to Cézanne’s technique.

How Scales came to know and assimilate this aspect of Fauvism is unclear. The movement’s use of exaggerated contrasts between pure primaries and secondaries is likely something that was taught in the academies at which she studied in Paris in the late 1920s; and she would, almost certainly, have seen Fauvist works in local galleries.4 Her tempered approach to Fauvist colour is, however, likely to have stemmed from Edmund Kinzinger, with whom she studied in St. Tropez and Munich in the early 1930s. Among her few surviving works of the 1930s are several views of the old town of St. Tropez, which emulate—and may have derived from—a Kinzinger composition [fig. 5]. It too features muted Fauvist accents amid a palette taken from Cézanne.

Scales spoke highly of Kinzinger’s instruction for the rest of her career. But to judge by her few surviving works of the 1930s, she never shared his fondness for geometry, nor did she gravitate toward his Cubist style, which was built around a layering of colour planes and independent, free-flowing line work [fig. 6].5 Her 1930s notebooks are replete with geometric diagrams and sketches deriving from his lectures, and she took down his advice to create depth by overlapping planes, rather than through single-point perspective. But her paintings remained softer than Kinzinger’s, and rather than adopt his depth technique, she applied colour patches side by side, relying on their temperature and shape to spatialise her image, a method that was closer to Cézanne’s.


fig. 5: Edmund Kinzinger, Town in Southern France, ca. 1930. Reproduced with the kind permission of Nancy Kinzinger.

fig. 6: Edmund Kinzinger, Women Walking by the Sea, 1934. Reproduced with the kind permission of Nancy Kinzinger.

To the extent that Scales did geometricise her imagery, as for example in Greniar [Graniers], St Tropez, Southern France (1939) [fig. 7], she seems to have drawn impetus from Pablo Picasso. A case in point is Brick Factory at Tortosa (1909), which Scales is known to have admired.6 The brown, shed-like structure near the centre of Scales’ composition is a blank, geometric solid, akin to Picasso’s factory buildings. It is canted in a manner reminiscent of Picasso’s lefthand shed, but lacks that structure’s upward tilt toward the picture plane. Scales’ palette likewise remains close to Picasso’s, which he himself had derived from Cézanne.7 But Scales inclined further toward Cézanne by introducing hints of blue to her work and by assembling her composition from soft colour patches. As in the French artist’s later work, these patches are frequently composed from a series of short parallel strokes. Yet just as Scales drew selectively on Picasso, so too did she engage with Cézanne on her own terms. As had been typical in her work since the 1910s, her brushwork was more varied than his, and her scene is also notably darker than his typically sparkling Mediterranean views.


Greniar offers evidence of Scales’ increasing independence, which would strengthen further following the war. From the mid-1940s, her imagery became softer still and her paint application thinned to the extreme. Initially, in works like Port of Weymouth Bay (1945) [fig. 8] and Untitled [Mousehole, Cornwall 2] (ca. 1950-59) [fig. 9], she built scenes around a contrast between canted three-dimensional motifs, like boats and buildings, and a hazy, often gold-tinged environment. Once complete, these compositions appeared to have been painted in two registers: the first flat and the second volumetric.

As time wore on, however, this spatial disjunction disappeared, and by the early 1960s, the buildings that still featured in her landscapes had become as indistinct as their surroundings. Emblematic of this shift are Bry-sur-Marne Looking Towards the Marne Valley (1965) [fig. 10] and Untitled [Pedn-Olva Hotel] (ca. 1966-69) [fig. 11]. Evidently there are structures nestled at the heart of both scenes, but in the former, their presence is disclosed by just a few white and terracotta dabs. In the latter, which Scales left untitled, it is only the work’s resemblance to named paintings like Boarding House, St Ives, Cornwall [1] (1968-1970) that allows us to discern a hotel. Even then we may have doubts about its shape and construction.


fig. 8: Flora Scales, Port of Weymouth Bay, 1945

fig. 9: Flora Scales, Untitled[Mousehole Cornwall 2], ca. 1950-59

In works such as these, Scales drew upon her decades of experience to develop her own radical approach to Impressionism. Setting Cézanne’s pursuit of solidity aside, but retaining and adapting his patch-work approach to composition, she returned to her Impressionist roots. Yet rather than revive her orthodox Impressionist technique of the 1910s and 1920s, she intensified the style’s dissolution of its subjects into light.

There were precedents for this kind of indefinite approach, which Scales is likely to have known of. Most pertinent, especially to her British coastal scenes, are the late works of J. M. W. Turner, whose golden ethereality she frequently evoked. In London, these would have been available to her in large numbers at the Tate. Another potential touchstone are Hans Hofmann’s Fauvist landscapes of the 1930s, which now and then disclose the outlines of a building [fig. 12]. Scales studied at Hofmann’s academy in Munich, where Kinzinger was teaching in his stead following his flight from the Nazis. In Paris, the dry and scumbled late works of Pierre Bonnard [fig. 13] may also have caught her attention.8

Scales’ probable awareness of these potential sources notwithstanding, her postwar style was no mere pastiche. She did not, for example, share Turner’s predilection for deep vistas, nor did she freight her works with his sense of the sublime. Unlike Hofmann, whose gestural technique made his landscapes feel frenetic, her paint application was much calmer. Her scenes were rendered gentler still by her naturalistic palette and by the much softer contrasts it produced. Finally, her scenes are much simpler than those of Bonnard, who swathed his compositions in detail up until his death.


What Scales evolved in the early postwar period was her own brand of Abstract Impressionism, which inverted that style’s normal balance of priorities. In compositions by the likes of Philip Guston and Jean-Paul Riopelle, which attracted the label ‘Abstract Impressionist’ in the mid-1950s, abstraction prevailed over naturalism.9 Not so in Scales’ scenes, which tipped the balance in the opposite direction, though not to the extent that they became as naturalistic as the work of the early French modernists. By virtue of this increased abstraction, it seems reasonable to see her postwar works as cultural and historical hybrids. They are products not just of the late 1800s, which remained their originating matrix, but also of the milieu into which they emerged at mid-century, when abstraction reached the height of its influence.10 Hers, then, was a radical Impressionism modified by subsequent developments.

Worth reflecting on in this connection are four pages of hand-written notes that Scales left behind in her estate. Devoted to the writing of Honoré de Balzac, the notes, which she likely copied from an unknown source, include a series of reflections on the French author’s well-known short story The Unknown Masterpiece (1831). The tale recounts the labours of Frenhofer, a fictional Baroque-era painter, to complete what was to be his greatest work. After years of tribulation, the painting is unveiled, but far from being a triumph, it appears to be a tangled mess of colour, whose only recognisable motif is a flawless female foot.


fig. 11: Flora Scales, Untitled[Pedn-Olva Hotel], ca. 1966-69

The story became a touchstone for successive generations of modernists, including Picasso and Cézanne. For the former, who illustrated it extensively in 1931, Frenhofer’s failed work became a pretext for bravura displays of abstract line work.11 Cézanne did not identify with Frenhofer’s painting, so much as with his tormented perfectionism, to the point where he reportedly declared: ‘Frenhofer, c’est moi!’ [I’m Frenhofer!].12 Scales may also have related to Frenhofer’s travails, but what her notes address most extensively are his theories about art. At one point they observe, for example, that:

‘Frenhofer’ rejects sharp outlining because bodies do not end with lines. Nature represents a consequence of roundnesses, which shone into one another. Strictly taken there is no drawing.13

Elsewhere, they more expansively remark:

Man conceived himself as a being in which a force was at work. This force is a breath which could be called Soul and Life. A similar force must be in everything which has movement and life: in animals, in wind, in water, in fire, even in a stone — thus is the whole world full of powers. Innumerable powers which are related to each other compose the world. Everything is eternal flow!14

In view of Scales’ career-long predilection for soft imagery, it is unsurprising that Balzac’s story struck a chord in her. Indeed, it may well have confirmed her in her leanings away from Kinzinger’s graphic style. But unlike Frenhofer, whose work collapsed into abstraction inadvertently, Scales approached it with deliberate intent. Instead of seeking, like Frenhofer, to fashion a pictorial environment in which ‘roundnesses’ reflect off one another as they do in the real world, she reduced three-dimensional reality to a near flat expanse of pure colour. This indefinite chromatic milieu, in which forms at times pass into one another, and at times break into quivering components, is as much a space of flicker as of flow—a space in which each region of colour possesses its own quantum of force.

A similar effect can be discerned in the work of the Impressionists, and also in the later work of Cézanne. But Scales’ flicker has its own sensibility. Imbued with a sense of evanescence, her colour touches quiver on the verge of disappearance, an effect that is not found among her models. Her scenes also flicker chronologically in ways that theirs do not. Not only do Scales’ paintings hopscotch back and forth stylistically between the late 1800s and the twentieth century, but since her passing they have jumped forward in time to encounter new viewers in the present. Scales has departed, but her paintings flicker on in perpetuity.


fig. 12: Hans Hofmann, Landscape, 1936

fig. 13: Pierre Bonnard, Self-Portrait, 1945, Foundation Bemberg, Toulouse, France

1 In colour theory, ‘value’ is another word for ‘shade’. It refers to the amount of light or dark within a colour.
2 ‘I wanted to make out of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art of the museums,’ Cézanne is reported to have said. (Cézanne, quoted in Joachim Gasquet, Joachim Gasquet’s Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations, trans. Christopher Pemberton [New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991], 164.)
3 On the details of Cézanne’s technique, see Richard Shiff, Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 199-219.
4 Scales’ papers contain a copy of a text called ‘Le Fauvisme’ by Maurice de Vlaminck. Vlaminck does not discuss colour, however, but rather the importance of individualism.
5 On Scales’ praise of Kinzinger’s teaching, see Untitled [Demonstration drawing based on Open Window, Collioure by Henri Matisse (1905)], and Gretchen Albrecht, ‘A Personal Reminiscence’, Art New Zealand issue 37, 1985, 52-53.
6 Scales’ mentioned Picasso’s work to Marjorie de Lange in 1982. (See ‘Word Pictures’ by Marjorie de Lange)
7 On Picasso’s response to Cézanne in the early 1900s, see William Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007).
8 Gretchen Albrecht has highlighted an affinity between Scales’ self-portraits of 1968, and Bonnard’s late self-portrait of 1945. (See Albrecht, ‘A Personal Reminiscence,’ 52.)

9 The term was purportedly coined by the painter Elaine De Kooning, who observed of several postwar abstractionists: ‘‘Retaining the quiet uniform pattern of strokes that spread over the canvas without climax or emphasis, these followers [of the Impressionists] keep the Impressionist manner of looking at a scene but leave out the scene.’’ (De Kooning, in Ian Chilvers [ed.], ‘Abstract Impressionism’, in The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024): https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198604761.001.0001/acref-9780198604761-e-15)
10 Gretchen Albrecht recalls showing Scales postcards of abstract works by Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. Albrecht no longer remembers how Scales responded to the postcards, but confirms she had an interest in abstraction. (Gretchen Albrecht, email to the author, 18 Nov, 2023.)
11 Honoré de Balzac, Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu [The Unknown Masterpiece] (Paris: Ambroise Vollard, Editeur, 1931), with etchings, engravings, and reproduced pencil drawings by Picasso. Scales recalled coming to admire Picasso as a result of Kinzinger’s teaching. Since Kinzinger was friendly with Picasso, and Scales’ studies with him coincided roughly with the book’s publication, she may have been introduced to Balzac’s story at that time.
12 For Cézanne’s response to Balzac, see Jon Kear, ‘"Frenhofer, c'est moi”: Cézanne's Nudes and Balzac's "Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu”’, The Cambridge Quarterly, 2006, vol. 35, no. 4 (2006): 345-360.
13 Scales, ‘Balzac’ notes included in Untitled [Loose Leaf Pages], n.d.: 3.
14 Ibid.: 2.