New book explores émigré legacy at RMIT

New book explores émigré legacy at RMIT

In an era when debate rages about giving refuge to those considered ‘outsiders’, a new book launched at RMIT Gallery explores the far-reaching impact and contributions of European migrants in Australian culture.

Melbourne Modern: European Art & Design at RMIT since 1945 reveals the extraordinary legacy of the many hundreds of exiled and displaced European artists, architects and designers who arrived in Australia, and in particular Melbourne, in the grim aftermath of World War II.

Many found employment in the leading Australian institutions, including Melbourne Technical College (later renamed Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), such as influential industrial designer Gerard Herbst who was forced to leave Germany after assisting a Jewish family following Kristallnacht, and was later honoured by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1995. He taught at RMIT from 1948 until he retired in 1976.

Melbourne Modern co-author Professor Harriet Edquist said that RMIT became ‘a home away from home’ for the émigrés, who supported each other with work and connections at the institution, and left an enormous legacy.

The book, published by RMIT Gallery with the generous support of the Gordon Darling Foundation, was launched by Pro-Vice Chancellor and Vice President, Professor Paul Gough at the complementary Melbourne Modern exhibition at RMIT Gallery (until 17 August).

Melbourne Modern exhibition installation by Stephanie Bradford Melbourne Modern exhibition installation by Stephanie Bradford

Both the book and the exhibition are a celebration and recognition of RMIT alumni, with 69 of the 92 artists represented in the exhibition having trained at the university under émigré teachers.

Written by the exhibition co-curators Professor Harriet Edquist and Dr Jane Eckett, the book provides an examination of how architecture and interior design, industrial design, painting, sculpture, printmaking and gold and silversmithing benefited from the professionalization instituted by the émigré staff.

According to Eckett, the European impact is most evident in the gold and silversmithing program at RMIT, which under the guidance of Czech goldsmith Vaclav Victor Vodicka, who migrated to Australia in 1950 as a displaced person under the International Refugee Organisation program, developed into the most successful and influential gold and silversmithing program in post-war Australia.

Similarly, the impact spanning three decades of post-World War II European émigré teachers Teisutis Zikaras, Vincas Jomantas, Hermann Hohaus and Inge King in the sculpture department was profound.

Between them they had studied in the academies and art schools of Kaunas, Vilnius, Berlin, Munich, London and Glasgow and inherited a centuries-old discourse of sculpture as a proxy for the human figure.

Melbourne Modern exhibition installation by Stephanie Bradford Melbourne Modern exhibition installation by Stephanie Bradford

With the emphasis on the sculptor as a highly skilled professional who could help shape the public sphere by working closely with architects, their positive legacy continues to be felt in the present day.

Melbourne Modern celebrates the inspired and dedicated practitioners and teachers of all nationalities, who escaped war-ravaged Europe to bring their unique skills, craft and creativity and enrich Melbourne and Australia for many decades,” said Gough.

Melbourne Modern is available for purchase at RMIT Gallery for $30.


Story: Evelyn Tsitas


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