Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2015

Awakening, Four Lives in Art (2015), by Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller

Four Lives in ArtFour Lives in Art couldn’t be more different to the last biography I read, but the undertaking is the same: to rescue from obscurity Australians whose lives have been overlooked.  And though the reasons are different, like Dundalli in Warrior, the four women in Awakening present challenges to those who would reconstruct their lives.

Successful in their lifetimes, today these four are largely unknown, and it is our view that their remarkable lives and achievements deserve recognition.   Although all four women are mentioned in anthologies and are now the subject of postgraduate research, only Louise Dyer has received in-depth attention, from Jim Davidson, in his account Lyrebird Rising: Louise Hanson-Dyer of Oiseau Lyre, 1884-1962 (1994).  With the exception of Louise Dyer, much of the work they made also no longer survives.  It has suffered the fate that Germaine Greer described in The Obstacle Race  (1979), having been lost or assimilated by their better known male contemporaries. Sculptures by Dora Ohlfsen in public collections, which for years languished in storage, are now lost.  American and Australian collectors bought Mary Cecil Allen’s work, yet today the whereabouts of most of these works is largely unknown.  (Introduction, p. vii)

Not mentioned in this paragraph is the publicist, Clarice Zander’s work.  More about her later…

The book doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive biography.  With about 40 pages for each subject,  Awakening spans the period between the close of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of the Second World War, focussing on the career paths of these women from the heady days of the post Federation era to the calamities of war.  This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of creating abrupt endings to the biographies, which are resolved in the Epilogue.  If I had realised that as I read, I would have consulted the Epilogue at the end of each section rather than when I reached the end of the book.  Separating the concluding years of the subjects’ lives like this is an editorial choice which assumes that readers read the book straight through in one go, rather than as I did, reading about each woman over a fortnight and reading other things in between.  But it’s a small quibble…

Anyway, it’s an interesting book.  Elsewhere, I have read and heard about the impact of WW1 on Australia’s view of itself. In the wake of the war it became more introverted, more nationalistic, and less welcoming of new ideas.  For the women in this book it meant that there was little alternative but to escape the stifling conservatism by going overseas, and that’s what they did, embracing opportunities for innovation and change.  At the same time, they took with them the Australian sense of independence and egalitarianism, which contributed to their success in new milieus.

Dora Ohlfsen (1867-1948) was a modernist artist who began her overseas training as a pianist in Vienna, but abandoned music for sculpture, and was very influenced by her time in Rome.  In particular, she created medallions, which – evidenced by the full colour illustrations in the book – were exquisite.  (You can see some of them here at Museum Victoria though predictably they are all Anzac medallions).  Not much of her work remains, but in the Art Gallery of NSW you can see The Awakening of Australian Art (1907), a detail from which is on the cover of the book, and other bronze work, the most beautiful of which is, I think Ceres (1910).  The Art Gallery, however, turned out to cause major disappointment when (after a return visit to Melbourne for family reasons) she was commissioned to design a bas-relief to adorn the entrance, but it all fell through in the end.  Her competition entry to design the sculptural decorations for the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne was not successful either.

Back in Rome fascism was emerging under Mussolini, and despite Dora’s doubts about the wisdom of staying there, she ended up accepting patronage from an old friend who was influential with the regime.  Thanks to this friend Tosti, she was commissioned to design the war memorial at Formia in Italy, which you can see here.   The Adelaide Register noted the event in an article dated 28 Dec 1926, which you can see at Trove nut otherwise she did not receive the recognition she should have had.   She certainly was recognised in Rome, where she also produced a medallion of Mussolini, visiting him five times and finding him ‘a great dynamic force’.  Whatever we might think about Mussolini now, Ohlfson was energised by the great fascist art projects, some of which you can still see in Rome if you know where to look.  She died in Rome, ‘Australian by birth, Italian at heart.’

Louise Dyer (1884-1962) was the brains behind the Lyrebird Press, rescuing early music from oblivion by publishing it in scholarly editions.   A great philanthropist who also worked indefatigably on her projects, she used her wealth and privilege to produce, amongst other works, a 12-volume edition of the Œuvres complètes of François Couperin (1668-1733) in the wake of post-war aversion to German music.  By the 1920s she had realised the cultural limitations of life in Melbourne, and its nationalism was stifling her attempts to promote new music such as that of Bela Bartók.  She had found London no better, but Paris was the mecca for musicians and it was there that she was able to support the new interest in early French music.  She was successful in many projects, the most spectacular of which, the authors say, was the 14th century Montpellier Codex of polyphonic works which she had transcribed into modern notation with notes and commentary, the edition enclosed in panels of Australian Blackwood.  It is dispiriting to read that despite her extraordinary success and prestige in the world of French arts, she was virtually ignored when she made a return visit to Melbourne.  This book is worth reading, if only to become aware of how Australian parochialism deadened cultural life in this period.

Clarice Zander (1893-1958) was a publicist.  Like many whose lives were blighted by WW1, she was widowed early though it appears to have been a merciful release because her husband came back from the war as a changed man, and the disastrous soldier settlement scheme exacerbated his drinking.  Clarice supported her daughter with a variety of jobs but found her métier when she was appointed manager of the New Gallery in Melbourne.  The artist Will Dyson became her soul-mate although she never married him, and for reasons of discretion, she followed him on a later ship to London.  Her promised job fell through, but she was a resilient woman and with Dyson’s connections and her own indomitable spirit she soon established herself in freelance journalism and eventually art promotion.

Once again, Australia let its talent down when she returned home to care for her ailing mother.  In 1932 she organised an ambitious exhibition of contemporary art brought from London, but there were few sales and the costs were higher than she had anticipated. Most discouraging was the reluctance to embrace the modern in art, and market protectionism added to the cost of anything imported.  Still, more than 5000 people visited her 1933 exhibition of paintings and sculpture at Newspaper House in Melbourne, notable because she brought art and design together for the first time with the inclusion of textiles, furniture and applied art from Cynthia Reed’s gallery.  But as in Melbourne, at successive shows in other states local galleries failed to buy Australian artists who had succeeded overseas but were not well-known at home, and most them were returned to England unsold.

No purchases were made by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the trustees were criticised for this.  Clarice’s exhibition became a focal point for the disaffection younger artists had felt for some time about the gallery, prompting a confrontation between the old and the new.  John D. Moore wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald criticising the Sydney trustees:

They have failed, as leaders of artistic thought, to help make our art galleries representative of the vital art of our time.  Instead, we find in our collections, with a few exceptions, lifeless examples of the work of artists, who though physically alive, are mentally dead. (p. 111)

Clarice returned to journalism in England in 1933 with her daughter, reporting on riots in France as well as art and society gossip. But in 1934 she was appointed to the Royal Academy of Arts as a press agent where she skilfully steered the Academy through a period of change.  Until WW2 broke out, she worked on  exhibitions to great acclaim there, developing the role of press agent into a new form:

Her work differed substantially from public relations as understood today. Today she would be called a gallery educator, coordinating and writing public programs, roles as yet generally not developed by museums in the 1930s.  Clarice was required to shape and direct public access to the gallery, write articles for the press, put together educational ‘kits’ and guide visitors from the press through an exhibition, all of which required expertise in art history and public relations. (p.118)

She also organised the first TV program from the Academy, but the advent of war, and the bombing of the Royal Academy in particular, brought her back to Australia.  Where – depressingly – her career came to a halt.

Mary Cecil Allen (1893-1962) began her career during the boom years when views about art were polarised.  She was ideally suited to educating art audiences, because she was an artist herself and her education in the university environment (where her father was a professor of medicine) had made her well-read and culturally erudite.  She took classes at the prestigious art school at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and then travelled to London with her family, arriving contemporaneously with exciting new developments in the arts.  She enrolled at the Slade School and worked with the notable figure painter Tonks, but left after three months, discouraged by her experience and declaring that they never taught one anything but that one’s pencil should be well sharpened and in the Life School the model was to be drawn in outline only!! (p.138)

She returned to Australia in 1914, but – keen to study again overseas – she applied for the NGV Travelling Scholarship.  She didn’t win it.   Instead she continued to innovate in her own art and at the same time became an interpreter of the progressive forces in art for her contemporaries, in her books and lectures, making modern art intelligible to both those with an interest in it and those who professed themselves hostile to it.  (p.142)

But when an opportunity came to travel to New York, then enjoying a boom, Mary took it.  Within months she was giving lectures, and before long her lectures were being published by Nortons.    She was not an apologist or polemicist for contemporary art but rather a progressive educator, communicating complex trends in jargon-free prose.  She seems to have fulfilled the role that the young Robert Hughes played when he brought The Shock of the New to television screens in the 1980s.  What a pity Australia couldn’t keep her!

Awakening as a really interesting book which augments the literature of art history in our country.

Steven Miller, BTW is the author of Dogs in Australian Art, which I reviewed some time ago…

Authors: Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller
Title: Awakening, Four Lives in Art
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053652
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.


Fishpond: Awakening: Four Lives in Art
Or direct from Wakefield Press


  1. Louise Dyer was clearly a very interesting woman. But, they all sound interesting. So many stories to be told yet, I bet.


    • Yes, I reckon the redoubtable Louise would be a great subject for a fictionalised life:)

      Liked by 1 person

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