Melbourne Modern: the legacy of European artists and designers

Melbourne Modern: the legacy of European artists and designers

A new exhibition at the RMIT Gallery traces the lasting impact of European influence on generations of RMIT teachers and students to the present day.

In the wake of World War II, hundreds of exiled and displaced European artists, architects and designers arrived in Melbourne. Many found employment at RMIT, in what was then Melbourne Technical College, bringing with them their rigorous training and bold philosophical ideas about modernism.

Melbourne Modern: European art and design at RMIT since 1945, opens at RMIT Gallery on 21 June and features art works from the RMIT Art Collection, RMIT Design Archives, and public and private collections. Many have never been publicly exhibited. 

Wolf Wennrich (1922-91), Object, 1974. Silver, acrylic, steel, brass, 7.7 x 7.7 x 4.7 cm WE McMillan Collection. RMIT University Art Collection.

Curated by 2018 Ursula Hoff Fellow at the University of Melbourne Dr Jane Eckett, and Director of the RMIT Design Archives and Professor of architectural history Harriet Edquist, the exhibition tells a fascinating and complicated story of the impact of emigré educators.

Eckett said European migrants were vital to Melbourne’s post-war modernist transformation.

“They were responsible for many mid-century modernist buildings; contributed to debates around town planning and designed notable abstract public artworks – from fountains to murals,” she said.

“They also introduced the latest German and Scandinavian design in gold and silversmithing, as well as fine European tailoring in the fashion industry, and a range of modernist approaches to fine art.”

Gus van der Heyde (1937), Cover for record titled Mendelssohn and Bruch Violin Concertos, 1960-63. Album cover, ink, cardboard, letterpress printing. RMIT Design Archives. Image: Stephanie Bradford, courtesy RMIT Design Archives.

These emigré educators include architects Ernest Fooks, Frederick Romberg and Frederick Sterne; artists Tate Adams, Richard Beck, Gus van der Heyde, Hermann Hohaus, Vincas Jomantas, Inge King, Hertha Kluge-Pott, Udo Sellbach, Teisutis Zikaras and Klaus Zimmer; and versatile designers such as Gerard Herbst, Adrianus Janssens, George Kral and Miloslav Zika, who worked variously in graphic design, fashion, industrial design, stained glass and art history.

The impact of gold and silversmiths Hendrik Forster, Ernst Fries, Johannes Kuhnen, Tor Schwanck, Victor Vodicka and Wolf Wennrich was far reaching.

Trained in Germany, Wennrich became the most influential jewellery lecturer of the 1960s and 70s in the RMIT Gold and Silversmithing studio, encouraging students to think of themselves as artists and pursue their own designs.

“These artists and designers did not bring with them one single monolithic modernism, but rather a constellation of ideas and philosophies that reflected their individual experiences as well as a long European lineage of technical education and design reform,” Eckett said.

This approach to modernism in architecture suited Australia, as it advocated informality and flexibility.

Common to most was the desire for an interdisciplinary approach to education, whereby architects studied sculpture, sculptors studied design, and designers studied painting.

Reflecting this interdisciplinary cross-pollination, the exhibition features works in a wide variety of media including painting, sculpture, prints, stained glass, silver, textiles, photography and film, as well as posters, architectural presentation drawings, student experiments in material studies, product prototypes and rare archival material.

One of RMIT University’s most acclaimed alumni, automotive designer Phillip Zmood had a hand in designing iconic Australian cars like the Holden Monaro, Commodore and Kingswood in his role as Australian Director of Design of GM Holden. 

The impact and significance of other emigré educators can be seen in the works of subsequent generations of artists and designers such as Philip Zmood, Geoffrey Bartlett, Su san Cohn, Jock Clutterbuck, Augustine Dall’Ava, John Davis, Emily Floyd, Robert Jacks, Sanné Mestrom, Anthony Pryor and Normana Wight, whose works are also represented in the exhibition.


What: Melbourne Modern: European art and design at RMIT since 1945

When: 21 June – 17 August 2019

Where: RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston Street, Melbourne



Story: Evelyn Tsitas


  • Design
  • Arts and culture

Related News

Rapid rise in Times Higher Education rankings

RMIT has risen 60 places in the 2020 Times Higher Education World Universities rankings released today.

The queer lens: A masterclass

The Capitol continues to deliver as an important cultural hub, with a screening of the ground-breaking documentary The Queen and a masterclass on what it means to be a genderqueer artist.

Meet the designer with her eyes on the prize

After winning a competition for her stand-out spectacles, one fashion student will see her eyewear designs come to life in Specsavers stores across Australia and New Zealand.

Confused or clueless about global politics? Barely Gettin' By is the podcast for you

A new podcast is using a history of the present and a different perspective to explore key political events and issues to ask what’s being missed when we only hear certain voices.

Subscribe to RMIT NewsSubscribe
Flag Image One Flag Image Two

Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business.

More information