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Here’s looking at: On the Swan by Elise Blumann

Casuarina trees were the perfect metaphor for Blumann’s life and the state of the world. Detail from Elise Blumann, On the Swan, Nedlands, 1942, Oil on composition board, 55.6x66.4cm. University of Western Australia.

Here’s looking at: On the Swan by Elise Blumann

Elise Blumann first encountered the Casuarina trees and the tortured forms of the Melaleucas along the foreshore of the Swan River when she and her husband Arnold arrived in Western Australia in the 1930s.

The trees registered their battle with the strong southerly winds in every twist and iteration of their trunks and branches. Set in the glistening white sand and low scrub they were the perfect metaphor for her life and the state of the world in the period before and during the second world war.

Blumann’s family had fled Germany when the Nazis took power in 1934 and, following a period of travel and short-term stays through Europe and Britain, they arrived on board the SS Ormond in Fremantle in January, 1937.

Elise and Arnold rented a house at 54 The Avenue Nedlands on the foreshore of the Swan River and began negotiating with local architect Harold Krantz to build them a house on Hackett Drive, an adjoining street but closer to the river frontage.

The house had a long front garden that flowed out towards the river with easy access to the broad expanse of foreshore. It had a studio on the first floor. Throughout the 1940s, Elise painted studio portraits and held classes and exhibitions in that space. From there she ventured out to paint the Casuarinas and Melaleucas along the shore.

Elise Blumann, On the Swan, Nedlands, 1942, Oil on composition board, 55.6x66.4cm. University of Western Australia

She was 41 years old, a mature woman with a young family. Her professional career, following her study at the Berlin Academy, had run parallel with the development of Modernism in Germany and she had worked, or was familiar with, the work of many of the key players. She had studied under Max Liebermann at the Academy, a central figure in the Berlin Secession Movement and later the Free Secession.

Elise and Arnold Blumann, c1928. Kate Pickard. From Sally Quin, Bauhaus on the Swan

The rigorous training she undertook, especially in drawing, and the influence of the Jugenstijl Movement, which encouraged a reverence for nature and a belief that through a study of natural forms an organic unity or “truth” could be discerned, were the cornerstones of Blumann’s art for the next 60 years.

It enabled her to negotiate the battleground between the more conservative Secessionist artists and the rising brigade of “Expressionist” artists that emererged in Berlin before the war. She took inspiration and direction from Liebermann as well as Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Paula Modershon-Becker and Wassily Kandinsky.

The early paintings of writhing Casuarinas and Melaleucas on the river foreshore were the result of this long training and of Blumann’s ability to absorb the ideas of her generation without slavishly copying the stylistic traits of other painters.

Her work from this period does not adopt the aggressive angularity of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, or the thick encrustation of colour in Emil Nolde‘s Expressionist work. As Sally Quin wrote in Bahaus on the Swan (2015):

In all these artists’ work Blumann valued an artistic approach in which the motif was interpreted freely and expressively according to the impulses of the individual artist.

The house on Hackett Drive. Kate Pickard. From Sally Quin, Bauhaus on the Swan

These ideas had been gestating over two decades before she was confronted by the botanical oddities of Melaleucas, Zamia Palms and Zanthorrea, and she was able to embrace them with renewed vigour and to invest them with a personal narrative that expressed her fears and frustrations in the face of world events that were shaping her life.

Painting on card, initially in situ, then back at the house in the Esplanade after developing her working drawings, she sought the “organic unity” of nature by responding to the rhythmic choreography of each branch as it twisted and turned up and away from the soil that held it captive.

This decorative flow links directly back to her training at the Academy and the influence of the Jugenstijl movement, but the colouration is remarkably subtle and in another key altogether. Responding to the palettes of Liebermann and Lovis Corinth, she found in the soft pinks, ochres, chromatic greys and Prussian blue accents a succinct equivalent for the rich subtleties of the local vegetation.

Blumann brought her formidable knowledge of European modernism into play with this strange Antipodean botany to produce a body of work comparable to the expressively charged landscapes of Russell Drysdale, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith that were produced around the same time.