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Influencing the Modern in Brisbane: Gertrude Langer and the Role of Newspaper Art Criticism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 October 2013

Judy Hamilton*
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Dr Gertrude Langer arrived quite by chance in Brisbane in 1939 as a refugee from Hitler's Europe. She was a young, elegant Austrian refugee with a PhD in art history from the University of Vienna. After arriving in Australia, Gertrude and her husband, Dr Karl Langer, had hoped to settle in Sydney, but Karl's work as an architect moved them on to Brisbane. Gertrude Langer would become an important figure in Brisbane's post-war art scene through her salon-style lectures, art criticism and work with the Australia Council. She strongly believed that the arts were an important part of a community, and for this reason became a champion for the cause of contemporary art in Brisbane.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 Gertrude Langer interviewed by Barbara Blackman [sound recording] (1982),, viewed 20 July 2013.

2 For a detailed survey of the Miya Studio group of the 1940s, see Michele Anderson, ‘Barjai, Miya Studio and young Brisbane artists of the 1940s: towards a radical practice’ (unpublished BA (Hons) thesis, University of Queensland, 1987). Bradbury, Keith and Cooke, Glenn R., Thorns and petals: 100 Years of the Royal Queensland Art Society (Brisbane: Royal Queensland Art Society, 1988)Google Scholar provide a detailed survey of the Royal Queensland Art Society. Hatherell, William, The third metropolis: imagining Brisbane through art and literature 1940–1970 (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2007)Google Scholar explores the broader cultural context. For Langer's biography, see Karen Fisher, ‘From Vienna to Brisbane and a life of art: Dr Gertrude Langer’ (unpublished BA Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 2006) and Nancy D. H. Underhill, ‘Gertrude Langer (1908–1984)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, viewed 30 April 2013.

3 Langer interviewed by Blackman. Except where otherwise indicated, biographical material is from this source.

4 Langer interviewed by Blackman, and Joy Roggenkamp interviewed by Barbara Blackman [sound recording] 1986,, viewed 30 April 2013.

5 Robert Hughes, ‘Stilted Brisbane’, cutting from The Bulletin, n.d., n.p., in Johnstone Gallery Archive, scrapbook Dec. 1962–Jan. 1964, State Library of Queensland.

6 Langer interviewed by Blackman.

7 Fisher, ‘From Vienna to Brisbane’, p. 9.

8 Selz, Peter, German expressionist painting (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1957), p. 78Google Scholar.

9 Miall, Nina, Kirchner: expressionism and the city (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2003), p. 5Google Scholar. Anderson, ‘Barjai, Miya Studio’, 11.

10 Miya Studio Second Exhibition Catalogue, Jim Crawford Papers. Fryer Library, Brisbane. In the Foreword of the first exhibition catalogue, Collinson refers to the interminable reproductions of gum trees in the paintings of Brisbane artists.

11 Miall, Kirchner, p. 5.

12 Sue Catling, ‘They paint in the attic but no starving’, Courier-Mail, 18 September 1946, 2.

13 In her review of the 1961 HDGA exhibition, Langer refers to artists such as Hal Missingham, Joy Roggenkamp and Winifred Towers, who ‘offer able work without reaching the heights of creativity’. Gertrude Langer, ‘Art society's show’, Courier-Mail, 16 July 1961, 2.

14 Fisher, pp. 49–50.

15 Brenson, Michael, ‘Newspaper art criticism’, Art Criticism 4.1 (1987), 13Google Scholar.

16 Agents such as Jeanettie Sheldon and Mary Corkery managed shows for individual artists in venues such as Room 53 in the Old Courier Building, in Mary Corkery's tearooms and at the Art Reference Library.

17 Christopher John McAuliffe, ‘Art criticism in Australia 1970–1984’ (unpublished MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1986), p. 9.

18 Brenson, ‘Newspaper art criticism’, 15.

19 O'Doherty, Brian, ‘Rauschenberg and the vernacular glance’, Art in America 61.5 (1973), 8287Google Scholar. Brian O'Doherty used the term ‘vernacular glance’ to describe a form of seeing that replaced the older ‘art audience's stare’ (82).

20 Genocchio, Benjamin (ed.), The art of persuasion: Australian art criticism 1950–2001 (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002), p. 15Google Scholar.

21 The biggest controversy occurred in 1947, when art critic E. C. W. (Elizabeth Webb) wrote a scathing review of the annual RQAS exhibition. Eight letters were sent to the Editor of the Courier-Mail between 7 and 12 August: three of these were from RQAS members supporting the quality of the exhibition; the other five came from members of the public and supported the view of the critic. Responses to E. C. W.'s review of Nolan's 1948 show included a response from the poet Judith Wright, questioning the standard of criticism.

22 Firmin McKinnon, ‘Art Society show is “best ever”’, Courier-Mail, 2 October 1941, 4.

23 McKinnon, ‘Art Society show’, 4.

24 Firmin McKinnon. ‘“Half Dozen Group's” art show varied and interesting’, Courier-Mail, 4 September 1941, 4. L. J. Harvey was well respected in Brisbane for his work with wood and ceramics. He was a member of both the RQAS and the HDGA until his untimely death in 1949.

25 Firmin McKinnon. ‘Variety in art shows’, Courier-Mail, 17 September 1946, 2.

26 Gertrude Langer, ‘Society has a mixed crop’, Courier-Mail, 31 July 1953, 2.

27 The idea of the Half Dozen Group of Artists as a more contemporary group comes from the makeup of the initial membership. Ann Ross, Leonard Shillam and Rosalie Wilson all worked in the ‘modern’ style. Also artists of the calibre of Rah Fizell and Margaret Preston exhibited with them. After a promising beginning, the group gradually became more reactionary and eventually its members took exception to Gertrude Langer's promotion of contemporary art and requested that the job of reviewing their exhibition in 1962 instead be given to Frederic Rogers of the Sunday Mail.

28 Gertrude Langer, ‘Masterly and sensitive work’, Courier-Mail, 1 September 1953, 2.

29 Frank Sherrin, ‘Art critic criticised’, Courier-Mail, 8 October 1953, 2.

30 Fridemanis, Helen, Artists and aspects of the Contemporary Art Society: Queensland Branch (Brisbane: Boolarong, 1991), p. 42Google Scholar.

31 Gertrude Langer, ‘Contemporary art body puts on its first show’, Courier-Mail, April 1962, 2.

32 Gertrude Langer, ‘Contemporary art on show’, Courier-Mail, 24 April 1963, 2.

33 Gertrude Langer, ‘Right paintings in the right place’, Courier-Mail, 2 October 1969, 2.

34 McKinnon, ‘“Half Dozen Group's” art show’.

35 E. C. W. (Elizabeth Webb), ‘Art versus sign writing’ Courier-Mail, 12 July 1947, 2.

36 E. C. W., ‘Art versus sign writing’.

37 Elizabeth Webb, ‘Shock tactics shock’, Courier-Mail, 18 February 1948, 2.

38 ‘Mixed taste at art show’, Courier-Mail, 20 February 1948, 3.

39 W. L., ‘New trends in art show’, Courier-Mail, 24 August 1948, 2.

40 Although Jane Clark notes in her book Sidney Nolan: landscapes and legends that the Courier-Mail commissioned the drawings that gave rise to the Drought series of paintings that were shown in 1953, she only mentions exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney (p. 114). The Drought series was also shown at the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane in September 1953.

41 Arnold Shore, ‘Macabre in art shows’, The Argus, 24 June 1953, 6.

42 Gertrude Langer, ‘Visual harmony in Nolan's work’, Courier-Mail, 15 September 1953, 2.

43 Langer, ‘Visual harmony’.

44 Sherrin, ‘Art critic criticised’; E. Lilian Pedersen, letter to T. C. Bray, HDGA archive, Box 2, Folder 3, Fryer Library, Brisbane.

45 Gertrude Langer, ‘Ragless in front rank’, Courier-Mail, 20 August 1956, 2.

46 Langer, ‘Ragless in front rank’.

47 Sherrin, ‘Art critic criticised’, 2.

48 Marion Finlayson, E. Lilian Pedersen and Roberta Ridgeway wrote to the Courier-Mail defending the RQAS against criticism from E. C. W. (Elizabeth Webb) in 1947, suggesting that better criticism might help the cause of art in Brisbane.

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