contents Introduction 1 part one sense games (New Zealand, Australia, Samoa) 1 The Flash 7 2 Cape Campbell 12 3 The First Sketchbook 17 4 Composing Motion 23 5 Modernism 30 6 Hei-Tiki 38 7 Sydney 45 8 Kinetic Theatre 52 9 Samoa 57 10 Deportation 63 11 Jack Ellitt 68 part two ‘individual happiness now’ (England) 12 Stoker Sculptor 79 13 Batiks 85 14 Tusalava 90.
introduction Len Lye stood out even within the colourful worlds of art and ﬁlm for his singularity. In the words of painter Julian Trevelyan, ‘He was like a man from Mars who saw everything from a different viewpoint, and it was this that made him original.’1 Lye’s exuberance, his unique taste in clothes, his quirky turn of phrase, and his free-wheeling life style made him a legendary ﬁgure among fellow artists and ﬁlm-makers. These were outward signs of the deep and uncompromising commitment to experiment and risk-taking in the arts that sustained him for more than 60 years as he applied his innovative approach to ﬁlm, sculpture, painting, photography and writing.
one the flash Len Lye’s ﬁrst clear memories belonged to the weeks that followed his third birthday. His father Harry was sick and the family had come to stay at West Eyreton with Aunt Emma and Uncle Charles. At night the boy was jolted awake by the sound of his father coughing and the other adults bustling about, their voices urgent. When he got up to see what was happening they shooed him out of the room, but he knew some terrible change was coming over his father who lay in bed sweating and gaunt. During the day he would hear the adults lower their voices when they thought he was listening. His mother Rose would give him a cuddle, together with his baby brother, but she was evasive when he asked her why she was crying.
two cape campbell Four years after their father’s death, when Len was 6 and Philip 3, their mother brought them to Aro Street in Wellington and introduced them to Frederick Ford Powell, a tall, good-looking man with blue eyes and jet-black hair. She and Powell were living together and they planned to marry. A year younger than Rose Lye, Powell seemed to be a man of few words but many thoughts. Some acquaintances were impressed by his scholarly seriousness, others found him moody or strange. His father, also named Frederick Ford Powell, had emigrated from England to become a house decorator in Christchurch. It was rumoured the Powell family was relieved that this eccentric young man was getting married.
three the first sketchbook Lye was sent to Masterton with his brother to board with ‘Aunt Aggie’ (Agnes McEwan), her husband Alfred James, and their three sons. The most exciting thing that happened during his stay in the McEwan household was learning to draw. At ﬁrst he had felt miserable and confused about leaving Cape Campbell, and though his aunt did her best to make the boys feel at home they missed their mother who was miles away in another town sorting things out. Stuck indoors one afternoon, Lye began leaﬁng through magazines which contained pictures of ‘cowboys and goddesses’ from the new medium of the movies. He liked the look of these drawings so much he found a pencil and began to copy them. He began with a cowboy, one of his favourite characters. When he was taken to a western ﬁlm — a rare treat in those days — he would study the way the heroes moved so he could imitate them: ‘I walked with a waddle, as if I’d just got down from a duck!’1 Now he discovered that if he worked carefully he could create a spitting image of a black-and-white poster-style cowboy. Although his picture was merely the copy of a copy, the process gave him an uncanny sense of closeness to the world he was representing. He drew all the cowboys then turned his attention to their co-stars, ‘the queens of loveliness’. Sketching faces was a way of discovering what he liked about them and it also demonstrated what could be achieved by going to a lot of trouble: ‘You looked at a ﬁnished drawing and saw the magic of your best powers of self staring at you.’ Lye had made pictures before but the pleasure he felt during his portrait binge was new and addictive. ‘In no time at all you’re an art novice, a dedicated sprout on the tree of art. You could think about it ﬁrst thing in the morning and last thing at night. You could think about it at any time during the day, whenever you saw something.’2 His new passion helped to compensate for the lost paradise of the lighthouse.3 Meanwhile the adults encouraged his new hobby because it kept him quiet. It was characteristic of Lye that once he liked something he was happy to devote an unlimited amount of time to it. After wearing down many pencils copying ‘notable heads galore’, he was allowed to graduate to pen and ink which got him closer to the look of the original. He saved up to buy his ﬁrst sketch book and 25.
four composing motion On the strength of his school results it was decided that Lye should tackle a commerce course. Bookkeeping held no interest for him but he needed a meal ticket. His Certiﬁcate of Proﬁciency entitled him to a free place in a full-time commercial course at the Wellington Technical College so long as he continued to make satisfactory progress. The Technical College, the ﬁrst of its kind in New Zealand, had been created as an alternative to secondary schools which tended to be the preserve of the middle and upper classes. The college offered practical training in four areas — commerce, engineering, homecraft, and art — to a broad range of students. Common to all options was a core curriculum that included English, arithmetic, and (surprisingly) drawing. Drawing had been championed from the beginning by Arthur Riley, prime mover of the college, who believed that ‘drawing was as necessary as writing in the modern age . [and] should be universally taught’.1 At the end of his ﬁrst two years at the Technical College Lye received a general report from the director, W. S. La Trobe, conﬁrming that ‘his attendance, diligence, conduct and progress have been satisfactory’. But in the middle of the following year, 1917, the director warned Rose that because of her son’s poor attendance his free place in the commercial course was in danger of being cancelled. Unless she could supply a medical certiﬁcate for him, she would be called upon to pay fees.2 In fact Lye did have medical problems, including a spinal injury suffered when he made a high dive at the Te Aro baths and struck the bottom with his head.3 But the real problem was that he was fed up with bookkeeping and tired of his part-time jobs. Currently he was working for Sargood, Son and Ewan Ltd, a clothing warehouse, a job which his mother was proud of having arranged for him through a family for whom she did cleaning. Lye was so bored by ofﬁce work that he started to exploit another of his health problems — a tendency for his face to turn alarmingly dark if he walked up stairs too fast — as a way to get lots of days off. Despite having invested two years in his commercial course, and against everyone’s advice, Lye decided that somehow he must build his life around art. He took his sketchbooks round to all the businesses he could ﬁnd that employed artists, and to his great relief obtained a junior position at Chandler & Co. Ltd, 31.
five modernism Lye was now searching books and magazines for any ideas that could be linked to his interest in motion. Fortunately Wellington’s population of 80,000 had access to a free public library and Lye spent many evenings learning how to make good use of catalogues and bibliographies. His discoveries made him a passionate believer in the value of such institutions: ‘Libraries are an absolute cinch for kids, you’ve just got to have them if you want social revolution.’1 His success in digging out information about art that his teachers were not aware of strengthened his belief that real education is something that one does alone. He had no interest in impressing people with the specialised knowledge he was acquiring, and some of his acquaintances would have been amazed to learn that he ever went near a book. The focus of his research shifted from England to other parts of Europe. Excited by his ﬁrst encounter with the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, Len set out to collect all the information he could ﬁnd, mostly limited to brief quotations or occasional black-and-white illustrations. What drew him to Cézanne was not motion but stillness: ‘I’d been sketching the action quality of clothes so much that the static sculptural quality [of his paintings] got me. I was reading what Cézanne had to say about the artistic value of three dimensions, and he certainly put emphasis on the rounded quality of his apples and bottles, and in the folds of clothes, napkins and tablecloths. It was the opposite of motion, but part of it, like the opposites silence and sound.’2 One lunch hour Lye took his sketchbook down to the harbour and — as practice in applying Cézanne’s ideas — started drawing a man seated like a rock on the end of the wharf: ‘I had just mapped out some very good rock veins of clothing folds when, you wouldn’t believe it, this rock began to topple. It swayed a little forward, and then a little back, hesitated, and a bit forward again. I couldn’t adjust to the motion, immobility changing to an inverted pendulum swinging back and forward. And then it dawned on me that my model was sleeping, dreaming of some swing under some faraway tree. I stepped out of my open-mouthed static stance to try to stop him, but I only managed to stretch out and touch the tail of his coat as he changed from a rock into a propeller, spinning down into the sea, and a great spread-eagled splash.’3 Lye dived in and saved this 46.
six hei-tiki In Christchurch, where Lye was able to board with Frank and Maud Cole (an uncle and aunt), he enrolled at the beginning of 1922 for evening and Saturday classes at the Canterbury College School of Art.1 He already knew its director, Archibald Frank Nicoll, who had taught an evening art class he had attended in Wellington while still a schoolboy. Nicoll took an interest in Lye. Born in Scot- land in 1886, he was in many ways an artist of the same type and generation as Richardson, combining a thorough academic training with a commitment to the close observation of nature.2 His landscape paintings were close to Impres- sionism in their heightened emphasis on light and colour and their lively brushwork, but like Richardson he was best known as a portrait painter. University professors, governors and their wives, chief justices, and mayors ‘ﬂowed smoothly’ onto his canvases.3 It was a measure of public taste that such portraits by Nicoll and Richardson enjoyed more recognition than their other work.