A forgotten masterpiece unearthed from a closet is getting an extensive makeover before it goes on display for the first time in 20 years.

The modernist painting by Auckland artist Lois White was found incomplete, creased and water damaged in White's studio after she died in the 1980s. It was rolled up in the back of a cupboard without a frame or stretcher. Te Papa curator of modern art Chelsea Nichols said the painting could have been in there for 50 years as White painted it around 1935.

The Te Papa art conservation team is restoring the 4.5m by 1.5m painting. The mural, Palm Sunday, will go on display in the ongoing New Visions New Zealand exhibition from August 15 to the end of January.

Nichols said White liked to tackle difficult subjects and this one is no different, depicting a religious allegoric story.


The painting tells the story of Jesus' procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He is depicted as an ordinary man as a sign of respect to his presence on Earth. He rides a donkey, which is a symbol of peace.

Palm Sunday is a Christian feast that falls on the Sunday before Easter. The feast commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Nichols said White is important in New Zealand's art history because her refined decorative style contrasted with her staunch leftist beliefs.

She said one of the strange things about White is that she was a very significant painter in the 1930s and 1940s but was then forgotten for about 30 years as she was considered "old fashioned".

It wasn't until she was rediscovered in the 1970s that she got her first solo exhibition aged 74.

"She painted a lot of work that fought for worker's rights but with pacifist beliefs, she was quite radical at the time."

Nichols says White painted eight murals throughout her life but only two are still around. The rest have been lost or destroyed in a fire.

The painting tells the story of Jesus' procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Photo / Te Papa
The painting tells the story of Jesus' procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Photo / Te Papa

She said Palm Sunday has only been exhibited once, at White's 1994 retrospective.
Paintings conservator Linda Waters said the painting was found in a terrible state but the biggest challenge was its size. The mural is so large they had to build a stretcher that can be bent in half to get around corners. It takes six people to move it.

They had to source a special adhesive made from Northern Hemisphere seaweed that has a matte finish to glue down some of the curling, flaking paint. Then they toned down some of the areas previously treated and did some inpainting where the colour had been lost.

But Waters emphasises they still leave the painting in an authentic state so they don't obscure past history.

"We're leaving aspects that show its poor state in a way."

White taught at the Elam Art School of the University of Auckland for almost 40 years until her retirement in 1963.

A Te Ara biography on White states her sensitivity to social issues, combined with interesting compositions of people done in a highly decorative style, have made her an unusual artist. Throughout her life she struggled to reconcile two sides of her personality: the God-fearing dutiful daughter and the creative artist.

Her most controversial painting, War Makers, painted in 1937, is an example of the anti-war commentary she concentrated on during these years.

By the late 1930s the war series was interspersed with religious and female symbols, portraiture and mural commissions. The female allegories celebrated a female-centred sexuality.

The years from 1947 to 1951 marked White's major period of production.

She never married and for many years lived with her mother, and sister, Gwen.

White was born in 1903 and died in 1984. The main public holdings of her work are at the Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa.