Rudolf Gopas was born on 13 December 1913 in Siluté, near Memel (Klaipeda), then part of Germany, the son of Pranas Gopas, a machinery merchant, and his wife, Marte Plauschin. He is often regarded as an expressionist artist and his birthplace is near Nidden, the Baltic fishing village where German expressionists often spent their summers painting in the period before the First World War.
Gopas studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Kaunas, the capital of independent Lithuania, from 1933 to 1938. This was a remarkable period of resurgent Lithuanian nationalism, and the determined modernism of his teachers linked back to Mikolajus Ciurlionis, a symbolist painter and revered founder of Lithuanian modern art, who was an important pioneer of abstract art. During the course of his studies Gopas travelled in Germany and Austria as well as Italy, Latvia and Greece. He was awarded a diploma and gold medal in 1936, graduating with the equivalent of honours (first category) in 1938.
During the occupation of Lithuania by German military forces from 1941 to 1944 Gopas saw service with the German army. At Kaunas, in December 1942, he married Natalija (Natascha) Seeberg; their daughter was born in 1944. When the Russian army advanced into Lithuania that year the Gopas family fled, along with tens of thousands of their compatriots, to Germany. Rudolf is said to have witnessed the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden.
For the next four years he lived in a refugee camp at Ehrwald, in the Tyrol province of Austria, eking out a living producing portraits and landscapes. In June 1949 he and his family arrived in New Zealand. From the transit camp at Pahiatua they were resettled in Dunedin, where Rudolf obtained employment as a photo-processor with the firm of Coulls Somerville Wilkie Limited.
Gopas’s artistic formation was disrupted by the war and was not fully resumed until he had settled in New Zealand, where he began to re-establish himself as a painter. From 1949 to 1953 he exhibited works at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington, and in 1951 began to exhibit at the Otago Art Society. Some of his works were in the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand in 1950 and 1951. He was one of the founders in 1951 of Dunedin’s Independent Group, who were featured at The Group show in Christchurch later that year. He was to become a regular exhibitor with The Group until its cessation in 1977.
In 1953 he moved to Christchurch, leaving his wife and daughter in Dunedin. He worked for a photographic firm and supplemented his income by drawing portraits, mainly of children. He also developed a provincial form of expressionism, mainly by reference to books. In ‘My chair’ (1956), his interpretation of one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings, ‘The chair and the pipe’, is depicted a copy of a 1945 Phaidon book on van Gogh. At this time he painted New Zealand harbour scenes, the sea and boats providing a link with his memories of the Baltic Sea. He was divorced in 1957, and in Christchurch on 25 November 1958 married the well-known radio broadcaster Airini Nga Roimata Grennell.
Seeking relief teaching work at the School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury, he was appointed temporary assistant lecturer in painting in 1959. His appointment to a permanent position was confirmed in 1960. This coincided with a marked increase in the availability of publications in English on expressionism and translations of the writings of some of its leading theorists and practitioners, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Wilhelm Wörringer, to which he constantly referred his students. As a teacher and a painter he provided art students with access to modern European art traditions other than those of Britain or France. He taught students to express emotions through art. Among those who responded to his encouragement were Philip Trusttum, Philippa Blair, Philip Clairmont and Kura Te Waru-Rewiri. From the latter two an influence flowed into the development of a highly expressive form of contemporary Maori painting.
An enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateur astronomer, he shared with several of the expressionist painters a fascination with the cosmos. He expressed this, from 1964, in his galactic series of works, which feature planets, stars and nebulae. Many have richly textured surfaces, and innovative use of metallic powders in combination with PVA (polyvinyl acetate) paints and glazes. In the 1970s his vision of the cosmos resounded with apocalyptic warnings expressed in declamatory inscriptions on his paintings and in obsessive doggerel verse, illuminated in Blake-like fashion. The last group of works on paper, an anthropomorphised series titled ‘Nature speaks’ (1976–78), was innovatively reproduced by means of a xerographic copying machine, and retouched.
The latter stages of his teaching career were marred by a deterioration in his mental health which made him cantankerous, erratic and fearsome. He resigned from his position in 1977 in acrimonious circumstances, and ‘skipped off to Europe’. In Ehrwald, Austria, he showed the ‘Paintings for the Sun’ (1975–76), his last great series of paintings, and presented them to the local council. A retrospective exhibition toured New Zealand in 1982 and 1983, which gave recognition to his achievements and contribution to New Zealand art. He died in Christchurch on 23 July 1983, survived by his wife and his daughter from his first marriage.