Talented quartet expanded cultural horizons
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.