Milan Mrkusich (1958-2018) was born in Dargaville in 1925 to Dalmatian parents who had emigrated from Podgora, in Yugoslavia. Two years later the family moved to Auckland. Mrkusich began painting in the 1940s inspired by modernist art he found in the only art-sources available at that time magazines and books, notably including a book on the German Bauhaus School of Architecture and Applied Arts held at the Auckland Public Library.
In 1946 he painted what is potentially New Zealand’s first fully abstract painting, and in 1949, he had his first solo exhibition of painting at the Auckland School of Architecture. Also in 1949 he formed Brenner Associates — a partnership with Ron Grant, Desmond Mullen (b. 1920) and Stephen Jelicich (b. 1923). The name derived from the Brenner Sportsware label which Mullen and Jelicich came across while flicking through an issue of the English fashion magazine, Queen. The founding members were united in their admiration for the Bauhaus, aiming to bring art values into the public domain and to establish an all-encompassing service as the Bauhaus had attempted. The significance of this was that they eroded the distinction between high art and low art, design having formerly been located towards the lower end of the hierarchy of the arts. According to Des Mullen, “Steve and I started Brenner because we agreed that no matter what the object was – whether you were designing a house, a teaspoon, a chair or whatever – the same principles applied – no rules but principles.”
From 1949 until 1958 Mrkusich worked for the multi-purpose architectural and design firm on interior designs, house designs, product displays and as a colour consultant. Their first project was to produce displays for the inaugural Easter show in 1950. For this they were contracted to the Public Relations Office, the contract continuing until 1953 and including the refurbishment of the rooms of the Public Relations Office in Achilles House with a mural.
These projects provided the money for Brenner’s retail shop at 299 Dominion Road which opened in 1952. In 1954, the firm moved to a more central location at 79 Hobson Street and finally to Vulcan Lane before the firm dissolved in 1958, inspiring Mrkusich to become a full-time painter. Brenner Associates were very influential for the local design scene. They sold high quality modern furniture, some of it imported, the rest by local designers such as Bob Roukema and Hans Kohl. New Vision opened in 1958, the year of Brenner’s demise, represented fabric printers, weavers and potters.
Mrkusich completed several large-scale and site-specific works during his artistic career. These include: a mosaic mural on the B. J. Ball Building overlooking Fanshawe Street, Auckland designed in 1959, the stained glass windows at Grey Lynn’s St Joseph’s Catholic Church, designed between 1959 and 1960, stained-glass windows for the Chapel of St Andrew in Quay Street’s Seafarers’ Memorial Centre, Auckland. These were salvaged before the Chapel was demolished in 1993 and are now permanently installed in the NZ Maritime Museum’s Edmiston Gallery of Maritime Art on the Viaduct. In 1994, Mrkusich, along with 11 other invited artists and designers, submitted a proposal for an artwork for the exterior of Te Papa’s then unconstructed Cable Street building. Mrkusich won the commission and his array of coloured enamel-on-glass panels, two storeys high and running the length of the building along Cable Street were installed ready for the museum’s grand opening in 1998.
In 1997 he was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit (ONZM) for his services to painting, and in 2003 was awarded the status of Icon Artist by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.
Mosaic, Christchurch headquarters of Foodstuffs, 1971
Foodstuffs mural, Roma Road, Mt Roskill, Auckland (1964) (destroyed)
B.J. Ball building mural, cnr Graham & Harding Streets, Auckland, 1958
14 Stations of the Cross and Church Entrance Madonna & Child mosaics, Church of The Holy Cross, cnr Lavelle and View Roads, Henderson, 1959
Mosaic frieze and stained glass windows, St Joseph’s Church, Grey Lynn, Auckland, 1959
Stained glass windows, Chapel of St Andrew, Seafarers’ Memorial Centre, Quay Street, Auckland, 1964