Kurt Revisits New Zealand - 1983


     A Californian professor of art history, espe­cially one with thorough groundings in such heady subjects as Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, tarot cards, Tai Chi and wine ap­preciation, would be the last person on earth normally expected to have pursued a rugby career.
     But Kurt von Meier, in Rotorua recently while taking a year's sabbatical from his post as head of the California State Uni­versity's art history de­partment in Sacramento, is a person who believes in getting down to basics.
     This philosophy is important both in his profes­sion, and relating to his life in general — it has also given the former Berkeley University back a "couple of gold teeth and a broken collarbone" as a result of his rugby playing exploits.
     The All Black captain and Canterbury player of the 1950s, Pat Vincent, introduced von Meier to rugby while they were both at Berkeley in the last years of that decade.
     "I wasn't a particularly big guy, so I played at fullback, and Pat taught me how to kick penal­ties," said von Meier, who added that he still avidly followed the sport both in the United States, and in New Zealand.
     He met Vincent while studying international law at Berkeley in 1958, and formed the New Zea­land connection. But von Meier's art history career did not start in earnest until the early 1960s when he enrolled at prestigious Princeton University -- after short stints with Hispanic and Japanese studies at Madrid and Stanford Universities re­spectively.
     At Princeton he strug­gled with art history studies — made difficult because all students there are required to carry a full, wide-ranging study programme.
     "I did primitive art, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, modern, French, German, and the rest — you were expected to have a total understanding of them all," he said.
     And then, a fresh graduate, he came to New Zealand to be the first-ever head of Aukland University's art his­tory department.
     Von Meier said he was prompted to make the trip by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and a read­ing of Neville Shute's book, On The Beach.
     "New Zealand or Aus­tralia were the places to be."
     "Creative indulgence is the other side of para­noia," he added.
     His trip to New Zealand this time — 18 years since he returned to California — was basically to look up old friends, like noted artist Theo Schoen, John Perry, one of his students at Auckland University, now the Rotorua Art Gal­lery director, and the chairman of the QE Arts Council, Hamish Keith.
     But it was also to start arrangements for a deal which may result in a high quality art book of Schoon's work, especially his photographs of Rot­orua's geothermal fea­tures, being printed in the US.
     Von Meier is carrying with him on his current trip a reference fact sheet from California State University which is cram­med with details of his career, especially since his return from New Zealand.
     Apart from his regular lecturing — he has been at California State since 1969, von Meier has de­lved into a mind-boggling array of other artistic and cultural activities.
     Highlights include the staging of exhibitions in 1966 at the University of California in Los Angeles, in conjunction with pop-art doyen, Andy Warhol, and featuring the music of bands liked Canned Heat, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Under­ground.
     He has also staged exhibitions of his private collection of Navajo In­dian weaving and native American artifacts and given feature lectures on subjects ranging from the history of rhythm and blues, to critical stan­dards of African arts.
     Among the hundreds of other facts picked from the sheets, von Meier is listed as a member of the Wine Library Association in his home town of Napa Valley, near Sacramento, and he is also an artistic consultant for both Walt Disney Productions and CBS Entertainment.
     He has had a long association with the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and said that many compari­sons can be made bet­ween theirs and the Maori culture, especially with the traditional artwork and the grievances over land rights.
     After a long period of decline, where they were submitting to the values of the white man, said von Meier, the Hopi people were starting to re-group and show more cultural pride and identity.
     "They are coming back and realising what they have in their lineal his­tory, and that if they let it go for much longer, it will be lost. Their darkest days are over," he said.
     Von Meier reckoned the same was happening to the Maori.
     He said the Hopi now had control over their traditional Arizona land, which was well defined in one area.
     He said Maori people were having more of a problem because their land was in many pieces, spread over New Zealand. 
     As an art historian, he said he was "always car­eful" to avoid becoming isolated from practicing artists — from real life ­and immersing himself in the world of "gold picture frames and art gallery openings."
     Von Meier said far­mers, for example, were just as much artists in a sense, because in general they appreciated the land, and used it without abusing it.
     "The art comes from the land — it always has," he said.