When Ibsen’s controversial play A Doll’s House opened to packed audiences at Melbourne’s Princes Theatre, the slam of the door as Nora left her husband in the final act echoed in the minds of thousands of young Australian women. This book is about four of these women, born in Victoria between 1867 and 1893, who lived through the changes which swept across life, culture and art during the early twentieth century.
Four short biographies trace the parallel lives of sculptor Dora Ohlfsen, publisher and patron Louise Dyer, publicist Clarice Zander and artist Mary Cecil Allen. Modern women of the arts, they awoke to their full potential and created opportunities for others to do likewise.
Dora Ohlfsen established a career as a celebrated sculptor. With Mussolini’s support, she became the only expatriate sculptor in Italy commissioned with a national war memorial. Significantly, her Anzac medal was the first commemorative work of art memorialising the Anzacs.
Louise Dyer invigorated music publishing and recording, helping to transform musical culture world-wide. Her label Les Éditions de L’Oiseau-Lyre laid the foundations of the modern early music revival and helped shape the notion of ‘authenticity’ in musical performance.
Clarice Zander promoted cultural understanding as a curator and as the publicist for the Royal Academy. She pioneered the modern marketing of art and curated Australia’s first important exhibition of contemporary British art.
Mary Cecil Allen, painter, critic, and educator, working at the centre of modern art, inspired many. She ran the first touring exhibition of contemporary Australian art in the United States.
The experiences common to these four women make this book a portrait of an age. Their story throws new light on the milieu in which they lived and the difference they made to it. All four were awake to the true nature of art and regarded artistic achievement as central to Australia’s ‘birth’ into the twentieth century and beyond. It is based entirely on new research and on primary material only recently available.
Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller are Sydney-based authors. Eileen Chanin is a historian at the University of New South Wales, and is currently the Menzies Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London. Steven Miller heads the National Art Archive at the Art Gallery of New South Wales Sydney.
Their last book, Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art (2005), received the NSW Premier’s Australian History Award. They also co-authored The Art and Life of Weaver Hawkins (1995). Eileen Chanin’s other books include Limbang Rebellion: 7 Days in December 1962 (2013) and Book Life: The life and times of David Scott Mitchell (2011). Steven Miller’s Dogs in Australian Art was published by Wakefield Press in 2012.
Image: Awakening: Four Lives in Art