Thursday 18 June 2020

The Awakening of Art in Australia - Dora Ohlfsen

Dora Ohlfsen was a multi-talented sculptor, musician, and writer who lived and worked in Australia, Italy, Russia and England.  She was born Adela Dora Ohlfsen-Bagge in 1869 in Ballarat to parents Christian Hermann and Kate. The Ohlfsen-Bagges had 11 children, of whom four died before Dora’s birth. Her father was an engineer, and the family moved to NSW in about 1883 after he obtained a government position as a Civil Engineer.
In Sydney, Dora attended Sydney Girls High, and showed an aptitude for music and languages. She studied piano for five years under M. Henri Kowalski, and newspaper articles of the day gave glowing reports of her concerts and recitals. Dora then travelled to Europe in 1892 to continue her piano studies at the Berlin Conservatorium, but she was considered too good, and instead taken under the wing of the composer and pianist Moritz Moszkowski and given free lessons! Sadly, in about 1896 Dora developed neuritis in her wrist, and was forced to take leave from her music studies.
During this period Dora travelled extensively, visiting Norway, Finland, France, Germany and Russia. Whilst in Rome she took up painting and sculpture, and was exhibited at the Rome Exhibition in 1903. In St Petersburg she worked for the US Consul General, (possibly as a spy!), taught music, wrote articles, painted, and met her lifelong partner Elena von Kugelken. A return to Rome saw her studying sculpting and bronze medal portraiture at the Villa Medici. She began to gain fame for her work in medal art, and received many commissions, exhibiting regularly. Her medal “The awakening of art in Australia” gained her international recognition. It received an award at the Franco-British exhibition in London, and was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1909.
An image of Dora Ohlfsen from the Sydney Mail.

Meanwhile in Australia, Christian retired to a property “Wyangah” in Minto, with his wife, and daughters Kate and Emily and Margarita. Kate and Margarita both taught music at Campbelltown Girls School. In 1908 Christian died at the family home in Minto. Ohlfsen Road Minto is named for the Ohlfsen family. Dora returned to her family in 1912 after 20 years abroad. Tragically her sister Margarita, also a talented pianist and well known in musical circles, died a few days after Dora’s return. Dora remained in Sydney for several years, setting up a studio salon, receiving many commissions and appearing frequently in the social columns.  In 1913 she obtained a commission for a bronze panel to be placed above the Art Gallery of NSW entrance door. Returning to Rome in October of 1913, she worked on the panel over the next several years but the trustees cancelled the work after the war, to Dora’s great disappointment.
During the war years Dora became a nurse with the Red Cross, inspiring her to work, at her own expense, on the creation of an ANZAC medal, to be sold for the benefit of permanently disabled Australian and New Zealand veterans. After the war Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy and Dora received a commission to make a portrait medallion of him, visiting him five times to make studies of him as he worked. She was also entrusted with the design of a war memorial at the naval base of Formia – the first woman, and the first non-Italian to be given such a commission. She began the work in 1923, and it was dedicated in 1926. As fascism tightened its grip on Italy Dora moved away from the patronage of the state and began making work for the church, and took up fresco painting, and making icons and sculptures. Her movements in Italy were restricted during the years of the Second World War, and after the war she found it difficult to obtain work.
On the 9th February 1949, Dora Ohlfsen and her long-time partner the Countess Elena von Kugelken were found dead in their gas-filled Rome studio. A police inquest found the deaths to be accidental and they were buried together in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Although her tombstone reads “Australian by birth, Italian at heart”, Dora herself said  “The scent and sight of a piece of wattle,  the scent of  gum leaves, even the trying hot winds of Rome affect me indescribably and bring with them a nostalgia which shows me that my heart is entirely Australian”.

Written by Claire Lynch
Tout-Smith, D. (2003) Dora Ohlfsen, Artist & Medallist in Museums Victoria Collections

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