Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack’s Untitled (abstract composition in red, yellow and blue) comes from a period when he was settled in ‘Lilliput’. Completed after retirement in his Swiftian Buschatelier near Ferny Creek in the Dandenong Hills, it is typical of his work of the time, with its central, almost cubist forms spanned by a multi-coloured arch. Indeed, with its overlapping transparencies of watercolour washes, transferred printed ink and aerial perspective, it is reminiscent, as much as anything, of his friend and colleague, the Bauhaus master Paul Klee.
From a partly Jewish family, the Frankfurt am Main–born Hirschfeld-Mack arrived in Australia in 1940. Before World War I (1914–18) he had studied art at the Kunstakademie Stuttgart with Adolf Hölzel and art history at the University of Munich under Heinrich Wölfflin. After being drafted into the army and fighting for some four years, he and his friend Oskar Schlemmer were among the first students to enrol at the Bauhaus when it opened in Weimar in 1919. He completed the preliminary course with Johannes Itten and subsequently worked in the printing workshop, overseen by Lyonel Feininger. But when the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, Hirschfeld-Mack stayed on in Weimar, teaching the theory of colour and form at the State Academy for Crafts and Architecture.
Hirschfeld-Mack later taught in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder and Berlin, but with the rise of Nazism he left for England in 1936, where he found community art employment. In 1938, he had work included in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Bauhaus 1919–1928 and he was encouraged by Josef Albers and Walter Gropius to move to America. With the outbreak of war, however, he was interned in England as an enemy alien, before being shipped to Australia, on the infamous prison ship SS Dunera, where he was interned again in Hay, Orange and, finally, Tatura. Extraordinarily, the headmaster of Geelong Grammar plucked him from Tatura, and by 1942 he was the head of the school’s art department, a position he held for more than fifteen years. He announced himself as an artist in Australia when he showed two works at the 1947 Contemporary Art Society exhibition in Melbourne and in 1948 held a solo exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Rowden White Library. But for a long time afterwards there was nothing; he had effectively vanished from Australian art history.
But, of course, Hirschfeld-Mack’s greatest contribution to Australian art was not as an artist but as an educator. Following the success of an exhibition devoted to the work of his Geelong students, in 1953 he ran a workshop of ten weekly classes, ‘Study of Materials’, for primary- and secondary-school art teachers at Melbourne Technical College, now RMIT. In 1958, a conference paper he delivered, titled ‘Creative activity and the study of materials’, was included in Education through art in Australia, edited by Bernard Smith. Following his death, in Sydney in 1965, the Art Teachers of Victoria devoted an issue of its magazine to him and published Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack: an appreciation.
Undoubtedly, Untitled (abstract composition …) can undoubtedly be read through the lens of these immediately preceding events. The work reminds us of the art of children in its simplicity, Paul Klee’s ‘angel of history’, as discussed by Walter Benjamin, and the work of his teachers in its affirmation of line and emancipation of colour. Between his 1948 exhibition at the Rowden White Library and a European retrospective of his work in 2000, Hirschfeld-Mack was lost, for which we might blame his decision not to go to Harvard at Gropius’s invitation. But when he returns to our history, he only serves to remind us that he was always here in the art of our children. Hirschfeld-Mack’s life and career are not only a lesson on the global nature of children’s art education – similar experiments in pedagogy were taking place in Rio de Janeiro and London around the same time – but ultimately point to children themselves as an untrained, unhistorical, unconscious and not-yet-nationalised Kandinskyesque ‘world spirit’.
Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson
Rex Butler teaches art history in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at Monash University.
A.D.S. Donaldson is a practising artist and teaches at the National Art School, Canberra.