The rise of Fascism and the resulting diaspora from World War Two brought many émigrés and refugees to Australia. These émigrés and refugees had a profound impact upon the emergence of modernism in Australia. In most cases, their practices – whether as artists, designers or architects – were interdisciplinary. In addition, they placed a strong emphasis on art education as well as on understanding art, architecture and design in a broader social context. To date, however, this talented, but displaced generation have only received limited and sporadic attention, which has the consequence of limiting the scope of their endeavors.1
In Australia, there were no comparable single or “marquee” institutions such as those in the Unites States, whether Black Mountain College (1933), the short-lived New Bauhaus (1937–38) or the School of Design (1939) in Chicago. The impact in Australia was, however, arguably similar in impact, but more diffuse and thus it is difficult to trace in terms of one particular standout institution or practice. By linking such expatriates together, their crucial role as innovators and also mediators between cultures begins to become apparent. Yet to date there has been no comprehensive study of the combined effect of so many European modernist émigré and refugees arriving and working in Australia at the one time. Unlike the English and much celebrated French influences on modernism, the difference was that – due to the rise of Fascism – German, Austrian and central European figures were forced to migrate so they were actually living, working and teaching in Australia. Thus, they exerted their influence first hand and more directly than other sources of modernist inspiration. By linking these expatriates together, their crucial role as innovators and also mediators between cultures starts to become apparent.
This is not only a matter of shifting perspective in any traditional account of the Australian reception of modernism, but also a way of opening up a new space for understanding the multiple inter-connections between Australia and German and central European cultural contexts at a foundational and formative period. Furthermore, the story of the Bauhaus – those trained at the Bauhaus or in Bauhaus-like methods – is directly relevant to the Australian context, even though it is a relatively unknown history in the international context. These practitioners were distinct in that their understanding of modernism was largely interdisciplinary, systematic and holistic. In this essay, we present a selection of examples to indicate the scope of this neglected history, which explains a more diffuse and widespread reception of modernist tenets at a time of global crisis.
Eleonore Lange (1893–1990)
One of the earliest émigrés was Eleonore Lange, who arrived in Australia from Germany in 1930. The circumstances behind her arrival are obscure, although Lange declared that she had reacted to the growing rise of fascism early on (thus leaving Germany before the Nazis ever came to power at the national level). In Sydney, Lange was soon involved in activities with local modernist groups. She wrote and lectured regularly on modern art as well as practicing as an artist, primarily as a sculptor. The irony is that Lange was not an especially abstract artist before arriving in Sydney, but she became an enthusiastic advocate of its possibilities, especially in the decade after her arrival in Australia, which corresponded with the National Socialists assuming power, imposing a dictatorship in Germany and the tense lead up to another war in Europe.
There are very few works by Lange that remain. This is because she largely abandoned her artistic ambitions after her first decade in Australia and focused instead on art education. One of Lange’s most prominent works is Seraph of Light, a plaster figurine or maquette, which she exhibited in the Women Artists of Australia Exhibition at the Education Department Gallery in Sydney, in July 1934.2 Seraph of Light was intended to be a memorial for an astronomer, thus combining Lange’s interests in art and science. Although the commission was never realized, Lange’s intentions express grand ambitions. Today, it looks a little like a sculptural version of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase except that its fluted forms ascend to the sky rather than travel downwards. At its peak, a sphere crowns the abstracted figure, as if to suggest a planet or another celestial entity. The monument was meant to be composed of glass “with the faceted “wings” creating form through a spectrum of color as refracted light.’3 Lange declared her ambitions to be a sculptor of light and was often frustrated by the lack of opportunities and technical capacity to carry out her plans in this field.4
The theme of a radiant beacon of light illuminating a path ahead and beyond its viewers was one that was common to the early generation of modernist artists. A new form of enlightenment based on an art and life merger underpinned their utopian aspirations for a new life based on greater social equity and the integration of various components of contemporary life’s disparate potentials. Compared to the darkening political realities, this remained a highly optimistic agenda for a better way of life and of living against the forbidding circumstances that confronted them.
In 1939 Lange participated in Exhibition I, a showcasing of Sydney modernism on the eve of World War Two (as a consequence of the outbreak of war, there was no Exhibition 2, or 3, etc.). Lange also wrote the foreword to their catalogue, in which she made a general call for the promotion of abstraction in art as well as a greater tolerance of modernist abstraction by the wider public. To this end, Lange provided an outline of its ambition, as she understood it. Her account of modernism referred to a “new realm of visual existence” that departed from Renaissance perspective and from the focus on external appearance, one that acknowledged the reality of two-dimensional picture plane, and moved instead to the abstract evocation of a more spiritual or enhanced reality. In heralding abstraction, however, Lange also felt that art could forge a closer connection to everyday modern industrial life: “the musical ear,” she stated in her Foreword, “can recognize in any noises, for instance the hum in a machine-room, the intervals of sound and time-measure of its rhythm.” Similarly, Lange asserts, the modern artist concentrates on “inherent color-sensations” in order to emphasize the structure of “color relations.”5
Lange thereafter primarily focused on art education and in 1947 she attained a teaching position at Frensham School, Mittagong.6 Her strength was that she offered a coherent program of modernist aspiration and allied it to pedagogical practices. Lange had a background in reform education in Germany as well as experience in teaching children with disabilities; in addition, in Frankfurt she had studied aesthetics with Hans Cornelius. According to Miller, during the first years after World War One, Lange “began to develop many of her fundamental ideas about the social, spiritual and therapeutic functions of art and about the importance of abstract art.”7 Between 1936 and 1939, Lange spent time formulating her ideas in a thesis, “On Spectral Colour Forms: An Outline of a theory on the physical and biological function of art.” What Lange’s example indicates is that it was in arts education where the avant-garde’s influence could often been most profound and most wide reaching.