From German WWII prisoner to important Australian modernist

Gabriella Coslovich, Australian Financial Review, 7 September 2022

Big-ticket items often get most of the attention at art auctions. Works by the likes of Smart, Streeton, Whiteley, Williams. But go looking beyond these towering figures, go wandering through the underbrush so to speak, and you may find historical gems and remarkable stories. Deutscher and Hackett’s auction next Wednesday in Sydney is a good example. Major paintings from the Clemenger Collection will no doubt be highly contested by bidders; Jeffrey Smart’s portrait of Germaine Greer, Brett Whiteley’s self-portrait with real hair, Fred William’s sumptuously minimal Lysterfield landscape.

But there’s a collection of 10 small abstract works by the German-Australian artist Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, consigned from the artist’s estate, and being offered on the secondary market for the first time, that could post some surprising results. Among them is a painting created in Berlin around 1935 that is lucky to have escaped confiscation by the Nazis, who despised modern art, seeing it as a threat to wholesome German values. The Nazis, of course, labelled modern art entartete kunst – degenerate art – and, in feat of propaganda, held a major exhibition of it to discredit it.

Hirschfeld-Mack is hardly a household name, but his is a complex and moving story of exile and deportation, with links to one of the great art movements of Europe – he was an alumni of Germany’s celebrated Bauhaus school of art and design. He was also one of the thousands of so-called enemy aliens – most of them Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution – transported to Australia during World War II in deplorable conditions on the British ship the Dunera.

Born in Frankfurt in 1893, Hirschfeld-Mack was the son of a leather factory owner. His parents encouraged his interest in art. He studied painting and craft in Munich before being conscripted into the German Army at the start of World War One. The horrors he witnessed on the Western Front converted him to Pacifism. After the war, he studied at the Stuttgart Academy under the famed colour theorist Adolf Höelzel. In 1919, Hirschfeld-Mack joined the Weimar Bauhaus, where his teachers included Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In 1922, he taught the first colour seminar at the Bauhaus, adapting the lessons of Höelzel. Hirschfeld-Mack moved to Berlin in 1934, but the rise of the Nazi regime forced Hirschfeld-Mack, who had Jewish heritage, to flee to England in 1936.

Before long, he was uprooted again. In 1940, after the fall of France, he was interred as an “enemy alien”, deported to Australia on the Dunera, and sent to the Hay and Orange internment camps of New South Wales, and then on to Tatura in Victoria. Hirschfeld-Mack was released from Tatura in 1942, thanks to the actions of the headmaster of Geelong Grammar, Sir James Darling, who hired him as the school’s art master. There, Hirschfeld-Mack became a highly respected teacher, imbuing his students with the ideals of the Bauhaus, giving them a broad education that ranged into crafts including wood-carving, weaving, leather-work, and musical instrument building. His legacy is celebrated to this day, through the school’s Hirschfeld-Mack Club, founded in 2003.