11 July 2015

Modern, independent women by Otto Dix, William Frater and Lina Bryans

Years ago I was given the 2003 book Lina Bryans, Rare Modern 1909-2000 to discuss... which I did in this blog.  But before returning to Lina Bryans and her Australian colleagues, I needed first to examine an earlier image of an emancipated woman, this time in Berlin. Sylvia von Harden was no intellectual slouch, publishing volumes of her own poetry in the racy Weimar years (1920 and 1927).

After the catastrophe of WW1, New Objectivity artist Otto Dix (1891-1969) could not wait to paint the new world with its decadent glamour, independent women and creative art­ists. Dix’s "Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden" 1926 presented his ambivalent version of the New Woman, seated at a cafe table with a shameful packet of Russian cigarettes and a scandalous American cocktail. Even her mannish hair and military-looking monocle suggested toughness.

For most viewers, Dix’s portraits reflected the ugliness of modern society. But Dix said he saw beauty in German realism. His painting was representative of an era concerned with a woman’s psych­ological condition and modernity, not overwhelmed by the shallow beauty of her face and breasts. Depictions of Weimar culture often used Dix’s view of the New Woman to show how important female independence, equality and modernity were. [Note, however, that right wing critics also used Dix’s portrait to show that modern women were ugly, anti-family and self-centred].

Otto Dix, 
Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926 
121 × 89 cm
Pompidou Centre, Paris

Now let us leap across the continents. German born Australian artist Lina Bryans' (1909–2000) art career did not involve formal enrolment in art school. She was probably influenced in the early years by Iain MacKinnon, the Scottish watercolour artist. He opened up the world of modern French art to her, and took her to galleries and exhibitions. In 1936 she met Scottish-born Australian William Jock Frater (1890-1974), the man who had the greatest influence on her career, largely by working together closely for many years.

Frater had studied art in Glasgow, London and Paris, then came to Australia to assist at the modern art school. He was said to be the father of Post-Impressionist, Cezannesque art in Australia. Frater’s modernism liberated his own work from convention and in turn influenced younger artists, above all Bryans. She worked for some time in his Little Collins St studio, which must have been riske’ enough. Were they both aware of the New Objectivity art movement in Germany? Had they both seen portraits of modern, independent women from the 1920s?

Then Lina Bryans finally decided to become an artist herself. The artist Norman MacGeorge and his circle in Heidelberg started inviting younger artists to the rural fringes of Melbourne to paint. Bryans and her friend Ian Fairweather were pleased to accept.

In 1940 Bryans bought an old hotel, Darebin Bridge House, where artist Ada May Plante had lived for a decade. And the old hotel became a cultural hub for artists, intellectuals and the very literary Meanjin group! Like the Reeds at Heide, she played an important nurturing role in Melbourne’s art world and this was even more riske’. What must Bryans’ mother have thought of single, married and divorced Bohemian arty types cavorting in an old hotel!!!

William Frater 
The Red Hat, 1937 
91 x 71 cm

One of Frater’s most famous and beautiful works was the Red Hat 1937, a study of Bryans herself! This painting shows Bryans as a young, modern woman with an eye for looking sharp. But also note Frater’s fine use of colour in modelling that really influenced Bryans in her own work.

The Babe Is Wise 1940 was Bryans’ striking portrait of Jean Campbell, painted only a couple of years after Frater’s Red Hat. The portrait clearly captured the animated personality of her close friend, author Jean Campbell. Appropriately, the title of the picture was inspired by that of a Jean Campbell novel.

Lina Bryans 
The babe is wise, 1940 
94 x 73 cm 

I am bringing the two Australian paintings together after all these years because Renata Singer (Gallery Magazine, NGV, June 2015) found them engaged in an unexpected dialogue. The composition of Bryans’ and Frater’s works were not dissimilar, with their sitters’ red hats, flushed lips and direct gazes. Perhaps this was not surprising - the artists both lived in Melbourne, were painting together before WW2 broke out in 1939, and shared many arty and literary friends.

But Singer was attracted to the notion that within and even between artworks there are layers of dialogue that inextricably link them together. Paintings can have relationships, as well as artists. Of course she loved the colour and movement, but she found it was the stories that pulled her into the two paintings. One woman in the paintings had hands on hips in a very modern way. One had a come-hither cleavage with arms powerful enough to chop stacks of firewood. These were smart and modern women, not to be messed with.

In the early 1940s Bryans had to choose between continuing to work with the more conservative Fraterand the Darebin group, or the more advanced and challenging Heide group. She shared a common spirit with the spontaneous style of the young Angry Penguins, Nolan, Boyd and Perceval. Like them, she rejected all forms of academic training, regardless of whether they were centred on the National Gallery School or on George Bell’s School. With her Darebin friends, she was inclined to the intuitive rather than the objective in art. But that debate is for another time.


Deb said...

I know more about Weimar art than I know about Australian art between the wars. I blame my school for not showing us our own culture.

Anonymous said...

I don't care what Dix says about beauty. His portrait of Sylvia von Harden is not beautiful. Frater's portrait of Bryans is lovely.

Jenny G

Hels said...


I remember studying Australian history in primary school, but concentrating on British and European history throughout secondary school. The same with art history at university, at least when I was there decades ago. I too learned far more about Italian, French, German and British arts than I ever did about Australian art.

I hope our courses at TAFEs are redressing that imbalance.

Hels said...


Dix's women are typically harsh as we can see in The Salon or in Three Prostitutes. Yes those two examples were working women, but I can see a lot in common with Sylia von Harden. Does that say more about Dix's terrible experiences in WW1 or more about his harsh views of modern post-war society?

By the way I agree with you about the Frater portrait of Bryans.

Leon Sims said...

Enjoyed reading your post as it reminds me of my time dabbling at art school at Preston Tech and spending time around the north east hill area of Melbourne. Being in Mentone, we are of course where it was the forerunner of the Heidelberg school period, yes?

Hels said...


I love the idea that Tom Roberts returned to Australia in 1885. He and Frederick McCubbin discovered Arthur Streeton painting his first canvas; they all became friends and shared a rented cottage at Mentone. 'Mentone' by Tom Roberts is in the NGV collection, as is Tom Roberts' painting 'Slumbering Sea Mentone'. Charles Conder's painting "Ricketts Point Beaumaris' is in Canberra' NGA. Charles Conder's "A Holiday at Mentone' is in the Art Gallery of South Australia.

It wasn't until 1888 that, together with Charles Conder, these artists moved out to Eaglemont and formally became the founders of the Heidelberg School.