Tal­ented quar­tet ex­panded cul­tural hori­zons

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son

Awak­en­ing: Four Lives in Art By Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller Wake­field Press, 272pp, $39.95 In Awak­en­ing, Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller lodge four Aus­tralian women’s ad­ven­tures — vi­cis­si­tudes might be a bet­ter word — in the mir­a­cle of an in­creas­ingly pro­gres­sive and op­ti­mistic Europe be­fore World War I smashed it to pieces. The back­drop to this clear and well­re­searched nar­ra­tive is the giddy Belle Epoque, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit of St Peters­burg, the car­nage of World War I, the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of the jazz age — and an­other bout of car­nage in World War II.

Each of the four women had the ad­van­tage of birth in a coun­try where hori­zons were ex­pand­ing rapidly, the very op­po­site of classstrat­i­fied Europe and Bri­tain, and their trav­els and ca­reer choices were un­der­pinned by money. To sail from Australia at the end of the 19th cen­tury was a priv­i­lege re­served for the very few. A pas­sage to Eng­land cost £75 while the ba­sic weekly wage was less than £3. Rel­a­tive

June 13-14, 2015 fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity also im­plied more ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial poise, which each of th­ese women had in spades. On ar­rival on the Con­ti­nent or in Eng­land, they had in­tro­duc­tions to diplo­mats, dames and sirs, politi­cians, gen­er­als and other big­wigs to smooth their paths, at least ini­tially.

Bal­larat-born Dora Ohlf­sen’s hopes of study­ing mu­sic in Ber­lin came to naught. The over-rig­or­ous regime taxed her nerves, but she found a sur­pris­ing tal­ent for sculp­ture when she ar­rived in Rome in 1902 and set up in an apart­ment a stone’s throw from the Pi­azza Bar­berini.

Here she dis­cov­ered an es­tab­lished and flour­ish­ing trade in paint­ings, sculp­ture and an­tiques and was soon ex­hibit­ing her bronze plaques, sculp­tures and medal­lions. In 1907 her work The Awak­en­ing of Aus­tralian Art, which shares some­thing of the spirit of Ber­tram Macken­nal’s bronze stud­ies of women, was pur­chased by the French gov­ern­ment. She was 38 when ar­ti­cles pro­fil­ing her achieve­ments ap­peared in the Aus­tralian press. One re­ported that the poet and swash­buck­ler Gabriele D’An­nun­zio was per­suaded to sit for her.

In 1912, Ohlf­sen re­turned to a barely recog­nis­able Syd­ney. Her tal­ent meant that she never lacked com­mis­sions, but one she had set her heart on did not ma­te­ri­alise. This was a bronze bas re­lief, one of a num­ber in­tended to grace the blind niches run­ning like a rib­bon around the fa­cade of the Art Gallery of NSW. Most still re­main empty. As critic Robert Hughes said in 1959: “Never has so large a nut, housed so in­ad­e­quate a ker­nel.” The trustees can­celled her com­mis­sion, with their chair­man John Sul­man dis­miss­ing her: “Miss Ohlf­sen is a woman, and although she has no case, can cause mis­chief.” She re­turned to Italy and nursed with the Red Cross when an earth­quake at Avez­zano killed 30,000 in 1915.

Louise Dyer was spun in the cocoon of pros­per­ity. Her fa­ther’s prom­i­nent med­i­cal prac­tice and op­u­lent home in Mel­bourne’s Collins Street were some­thing of a draw­card for the city’s no­ta­bles, and Tom Roberts painted her por­trait when she was five. In 1907, her younger brother Louis trav­elled abroad to study at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity and she ac­com­pa­nied him. As in the case of Ohlf­sen, her plans to study the pi­ano were dashed.

Re­turn­ing to Australia, her mar­riage to James Dyer, a wid­ower 25 years her se­nior, placed her squarely in the cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual world, but as the au­thors make clear “her am­bi­tion was for some­thing be­yond the role of a wealthy sa­lon host­ess”. She cham­pi­oned, com­mis­sioned and pub­lished new mu­si­cal works with a gen­eros­ity and fore­sight that would not be matched un­til the ABC es­tab­lished orches­tras in the 1930s.

Later in Paris she turned to pub­lish­ing his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant mu­si­cal scores — an am­bi­tious project launched by her imprint Lyre­bird Press. Her first edi­tion was de­voted to Fran­cois Couperin (1668-1733). It proved a sen­sa­tion and res­cued the com­poser “from 250 years of obliv­ion”. More vol­umes fol­lowed and they were lav­ishly praised, es­pe­cially in France and the US.

The third of th­ese four re­mark­able women is Clarice Zan­der. As a free­lance illustrator she was earn­ing an as­ton­ish­ing £10 a week when in 1915 she mar­ried Charles Zan­der, the hand­some son of a no­table Vic­to­rian stal­lion breeder. It was only a ques­tion of time be­fore he was dis­patched to the trenches in France, where he was badly wounded. He fi­nally re­turned to Australia and this pro­vides one of the truly for­lorn notes in the book.

Politi­cians and bu­reau­crats grand­stand end­lessly about the courage, dig­nity and sac­ri­fices of the Aus­tralian sol­dier, but words are cheap.

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