Awakening: Four Lives in Art

Eileen Chanin, Steven Miller
Biography, Books
Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2015. 229pp. Paperback
ISBN: 978 1 74305 365 2
www.wakefieldpress.com.au
Reviewed by , February 1st, 2016

Four inspiring women, though not exactly household names today, are given some much-deserved attention in this engrossing publication. Dora Ohlfsen, Louise Dyer, Clarice Zander and Mary Cecil Allen, born in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century, all achieved prominence in areas that were often regarded as the exclusive province of males. These fascinating portraits are not full biographies, as the authors decided to limit coverage of their stories to 1939, the beginning of the War II.

Louise Dyer

Louise Dyer

Of the four women, the best-known is probably Louise Dyer (1884-1962), the initiator of Lyrebird Press (Les Éditions d’ L’Oiseau-Lyre). She came from an affluent background and received the best education possible, excelling in music and languages. Early experiences in overseas travel led to continuation of piano studies in Glasgow, but she eventually decided that her technique was not up to the necessary standard for a successful career as a soloist. Dyer returned to Melbourne and put her energies into the Alliance Française and initiating the British Music Society. She was influential and successful, ambitious yet somewhat frustrated, so she moved to Paris where she proceeded to make a name for herself in the production of music publications of excellence. The authors have described well the musical milieu of the times and the role of Dyer, a person who was dedicated to top quality musicianship in all aspects of her activities. The release in 1933 of a stunning twelve-volume edition of the complete works of Couperin was the first of many such ventures. She was not only interested in early French repertoire, she also supported contemporary composers such as Holst, Britten, Ibert, Roussel, Milhaud, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Margaret Sutherland. Dyer’s exceptional work gained her world-wide recognition and a Légion d’Honneur from the French government. More of her story is covered in the Epilogue (see below).

Dora Ohlfson c.1912

Dora Ohlfson c.1912

Dora Ohlfsen (1867-1948) was born in Ballarat, a flourishing town where her father had an important role as an engineer; the family moved to Sydney when Dora was 15. She attended the progressive Sydney Girls High School, demonstrating a talent for music and languages. At age 23 she went to Berlin to further her musical studies and after three years, at the start of a fully professional career as a pianist, she developed neuritis in an arm and suffered what was described as a ‘breakdown’. This caused her to look for an alternate pursuit. She travelled to St Petersburg where she developed an interest in sculpture. The description of Russian life in this chapter of the book is absorbing, as it covers the influence of theosophy, symbolism and more. During unsettled times in Russia around the turn of the century, it became clear to Dora that she would have to leave, so she chose Rome for its abundant sculptural inspirations. She was fortunate in having influential associations and subsequently established a successful career as a sculptor. She is particularly famous for her war memorial at Formio, dedicated in 1926; this was criticised later as “not of great artistic worth”, demolished, then restored as recently as 2008. Her attempts to get major commissions in Australia often led to disappointment – the problem of being female, perhaps. Her works appear imaginative and skilled, for example, the medal The Awakening of Australian Art (1907) which seems to presage by some years the art deco movement; it is reproduced on the cover of the book.

Dora Ohlfson: The Awakening of Australian Art (medal)

Dora Ohlfson: The Awakening of Australian Art (medal)

Clarice Zander (1893-1958) was the epitome of a capable, resourceful and energetic woman. She had to be. The early death of both her father and her husband left her as the sole breadwinner for herself and three others – her mother, grandmother and her child. She freelanced as an illustrator and commercial artist. Her most influential role was as manager of a gallery which supported new works by Australian artists; subsequently she became an activist in support of the contemporary in a world of conservatism. She moved to London in 1930 to follow a new love interest, and soon after began work for the Royal Academy as a publicity agent for its summer and winter exhibitions. Here she developed a role as educator, organiser of all public liaison including press, radio and TV and eventually as a curator. The authors have painted a clear picture of Zander’s commitment and inventiveness as she increasingly became the public face of the Academy; in fact, she was a pioneer in modern marketing of art. After spending the war years in Australia, she returned to London where her increasingly wide and influential circle of contacts included Salvador Dali, Alec Guinness, Jacob Epstein, James Gleeson, Sidney Nolan and Peggy Glanville-Hicks.

Clarice Zander, 1933

Clarice Zander, 1933

Mary Cecil Allen (1893-1962) had a cultural upbringing. She attended Melbourne University and the art school at the National Gallery of Victoria under tutelage of the famous painter, Frederick McCubbin. A trip to London and Paris during her student years gave her the opportunity to see and assess both the old masters and the works of the avant-garde. This furthering of her knowledge put her somewhat ahead of her fellow students, thus she became an expert amongst them in art appreciation. A striking presence at nearly six feet tall, dynamic and ambitious, she was obviously quite a force at this early stage in her career, which set her on the lifelong path of education. She spent much time in New York where she became well-known as a visual artist, writer and an interpreter of progressive influences in art through books and lectures. She made several trips back to Australia where she was a popular speaker, with a gift for making modern art intelligible, even in the face of negative conservatism. Her paintings are in galleries and private collections, but have largely been lost. However, there is always the possibility of rediscovery, as has happened in recent years for her contemporary, Clarice Beckett.

Mary Cecil Allen

Mary Cecil Allen

Having had their interest aroused, readers will no doubt be pleased to find an Epilogue which provides brief summaries of what happened to the women after 1939. The post-war story is especially important in the case of Louise Dyer, better known as Hanson-Dyer after marriage to her second husband Joseph Hanson. Together they continued and expanded L’Oiseau-Lyre publications to include a world-famous catalogue of rare music on disc. Louise Hanson-Dyer undoubtedly played an integral part in the burgeoning interest in early music at that time.

Mary Cecil Allen: Reclining Blue Figure

Mary Cecil Allen: Reclining Blue Figure

The many illustrations include splendid portraits of all four women, a number of colour plates and black and white photographs. Chapter notes, index and bibliography complete the whole. Choice of font and paper are pleasing. The writing styles of Chanin and Miller match well and their research appears exhaustive. Their clear, concise and vividly-drawn profiles bring to life these inspiring Australians.

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