Sunday, April 29, 2012

German Precision

  • 28 Apr 2012
  • Review
  • Christopher Allen
  • Fred Kruger: Intimate Landscapes Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, to May 27


A COUPLE of recent exhibitions have recalled the part Germans played in the history of Australia, especially during the first half of the nation’s short history. The Enemy at Home (reviewed here in August last year), at the Museum of Sydney, revealed a remarkable collection of photographs made in the concentration camps where Germans were held as enemy aliens during World War I — and in the process reminded us that Germans were once the most important non-british part of the Australian population.

It was in the aftermath of World War II that Australia’s ethnic composition, and eventually also its cultural tone, were profoundly changed by the influx of Mediterranean immigrants, mainly from Italy and Greece, but also from regions such as the former Yugoslavia and Malta. At the turn of the last century, there were relatively few southern Europeans, but about 100,000 Germans, many of whom were concentrated in areas such as South Australia, where German was spoken and German religious and cultural traditions followed.

Germans were distinguished in many fields of Australian life, from industry and agriculture — particularly viticulture — to scholarly life and missionary activity; until after the Great War, when a large number were deported and others left voluntarily, discouraged by the new mood of xenophobia among British-australians. Their prominence in mid-19th century Melbourne was particularly notable, as we can hardly fail to notice in the outstanding Eugene von Guerard exhibition that originated at the National Gallery of Victoria and opened this week at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Melbourne was a new city in the mid-19th century, fuelled by the wealth of the gold rush, but rapidly building a cultural and scientific infrastructure of museums, libraries and a university only slightly younger than Sydney’s. And the remarkable fact is that most of the important scientists were Germans, including Ferdinand von Mueller, the great botanist; Georg von Neumayer, a geophysicist; Wilhelm Blandowski, the founding curator of the Museum of Natural History; Gerard Krefft, a zoologist; and Ludwig Becker, artist and geologist.

Many of them, such as von Guerard, were inspired by the teaching of Alexander von Humboldt, one of the intellectual giants of the age, who urged scientists and artists to explore the vast areas of the world that remained to be properly studied by geologists and natural historians.

But this was a different Germany from the one that emerged later and gradually succumbed to the militarism that led the nation from the catastrophe of one world war to the horror of Nazism and the new disaster of World War II. Germany in the middle of the 19th century was still a collection of separate kingdoms and tiny principalities; the greatest of Germanic states, and the traditional leader of the German world, was Austria, but Prussia, far to the north, had established itself as a great power in the 18th century under Frederick the Great, and it was the British and Prussians together who ultimately defeated Napoleon. When German unification came in 1870, Prussia instigated the process and dominated the new nation, excluding Austria, which it had already defeated in the Austro-prussian war of 1866.

The Germans in Melbourne belonged to what was still a politically and socially diverse people, and at the same time an artistic and scholarly tradition that was unsurpassed across the world.

German culture, which had been intellectually provincial for centuries, had blossomed into a golden age in the romantic period, renewing the language itself, establishing the standards of modern scholarship in areas as diverse as science, philosophy and philology, and reaffirming its absolute primacy in music. The momentum established early in the new century continued on into and beyond the period of unification, and as we saw in yet another exhibition with a German focus, The Mad Square, was still remarkable even in the shattered social fabric of the Weimar Republic.

Fred Kruger, whose photographs are shown in a comprehensive survey for the first time at the NGV, also came from this renascent Germany; unlike the aristocratic Humboldt and most of the German scientists in Melbourne, however, his background was a working-class one. He was born, as we learn from the fine catalogue by Isobel Crombie, in 1831 and grew up in Berlin, but his father, who was an unskilled worker, died in 1837 when Fred was only a little boy. It is unclear how his mother survived with four children under the age of six, but Fred grew up, married in 1858 and worked as an upholsterer. In 1860 he immigrated to Australia, joining his two brothers already here. His wife joined him two years later.

Initially he joined his brother Bernhard in an upholstery and furniture business in Rutherglen, northeastern Victoria, but as the alluvial gold ran out, the profitability of their venture declined, and Kruger sold up and moved elsewhere. He continued working in upholstery for a time but was forced into bankruptcy, before emerging soon afterwards, without any clear evidence as to how he learnt the trade, as a photographer.

Crombie paints a fascinating and poignant picture — based on limited documentary resources — of an artist’s career: of the separate courses of a personal life marked by repeated bereavement, as child after child was born and then died in infancy, and of a professional existence pursued with energy and determination. The vicissitudes of the personal life seem to be reflected in regular and restless changes of domicile, while the continuity of the professional practice is manifest not only in a steady production of images, sold separately or in albums, but an ambitious participation in national and especially international exhibitions from Paris to India, in which he was frequently awarded medals and other prizes.

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