When Helen Hitchings launched her gallery in 1949, it was a landmark moment for modernism in New Zealand. Te Papa celebrates this event with the exhibition in Ngā Toi /Arts Te Papa with the Gallery of Helen Hitchings.
Former advertising assistant and theatre designer, Hitchings had established her dealer gallery in a converted warehouse space in Wellington. Selling New Zealand art and design of the day, she talked in a radio interview about her desire to ‘stimulate awareness in a simple, practical way of the principles of good domestic design’. Far from being formal, she encouraged the wider public to look, touch, and feel for themselves. Hitchings commented ‘I’ve learnt to identify an architectural student by the way he wriggles on his stomach over the floor, peering critically for construction details at the undersides of the coffee table….’
In bringing together both art and design, Hitchings identified with the democratic views of the German Bauhaus school which upheld the equality of all areas in the arts. The Austrian architect Ernst Plischke, who had trained under these principles, designed the furniture for her gallery. He was living and working in Wellington at the time. You can see Plischke’s sleek chairs and tables at Te Papa and in the photographs that Hitchings commissioned at the time.
So too, you can view Toss Woollaston’s The Red Shed, Jackson’s orchard, Mahana that Hitchings showed in the McCahon-Woollaston exhibition of 1949, the photograph of which you see here. Woollaston like McCahon was to become a leading figure in the history of New Zealand art.
Historic photographs help us gain a greater understanding of Helen Hitching’s gallery, the art and design that she selected and how she contributed to the history of modernism in this country.
In 1951, she headed to London taking a selection of New Zealand art with her. The gallery closed and on her return she was unable to reopen, ending an early yet courageous effort to educate and introduce the public to modernism in Wellington. Visit Being Modern to see art, objects and photographs of The Gallery of Helen Hitchings.
Curator, decorative art and design