Nora Heysen: A Portrait

Nora Heysen: A Portrait

by Anne-Louise Willoughby


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Hahndorf artist Nora Heysen was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, and Australia’s first female painter to be appointed as an official war artist. A portraitist and a flower painter, Nora Heysen’s life was defined by an all-consuming drive to draw and paint. In 1989, aged 78, Nora re-emerged on the Australian art scene when the nation’s major art institutions restored her position after years of artistic obscurity. Extensively researched, and containing artworks and photographs from the painter’s life, this is the first biography of the artist, and it has been enthusiastically embraced by the Heysen family. This authorized biography coincides with a major retrospective of the works of Nora and her father, landscape painter Hans Heysen, to be held at the National Gallery of Victoria in March 2019.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781925815207
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Anne-Louise Willoughby is a journalist and freelance writer with a background in Italian and fine-art history. The Nora Heysen biography was written as the substantial component of her PhD
in creative non-fiction, which she is currently completing at the University of Western Australia.

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Give me Art that comes from the world that surrounds us, the beauty of which we can see and absorb — a clean beauty that makes us the happier for our experience. – Hans Heysen

She captured a sense of the way these women saw themselves and their place in a unique time. Nora said she wasn't a feminist but she identified with women working in a man's world. – Eugene Schlusser

Nora Heysen was well suited to depicting authoritative women. After all, she was one. Her portraits of the heads of the women's services painted in her capacity as official war artist represent their strength along with her own in the determined brushstrokes she applied to canvas. She was strong in character, sharp in wit and determined to live her life on her own terms. From an early age, she had capable female role models: she, her mother and older sisters all had a part to play in a seemingly idyllic yet hardworking, self-sufficient pastoral life. Her father recognised Nora's talent as a child and encouraged her to draw alongside him in his studio at The Cedars, the 'gentleman's country residence' which became the home of the Heysen family. With thoughtful and disciplined practice, along with practical, if in some ways equivocal, support and encouragement from both her mother and father, Nora became a painter. However, her background was a gift imbued with family contradictions and complexities that were not always constructive.

In November 2000, just over three years before her death on 30 December 2003, a full-scale retrospective of Nora's work was mounted at the National Library of Australia (NLA). In a glossy four-page feature article in The Australian Financial Review Magazine, illustrated with large colour photographs including a dramatic portrait shot, the 'art men' around Nora Heysen discussed her position in Australian painting. The journalist David Meagher wrote:

At 89, Heysen's life has spanned an unparalleled sweep of Australian and international art history. Through her father, she is a living link to the masters of Australian painting; through her friendships — including with Orovida Pissarro, granddaughter of Camille Pissarro — she is separated by considerably less than six degrees from the great post-Impressionists from Cézanne to Van Gogh.

No matter where or in what context Nora Heysen is considered, her father is never far from the discussion. As one of Australia's best-known landscape painters, his work became part of our national imagery from Federation through to the 1960s. In the opening paragraph to his article, Meagher refers to her seventy-year career and her refusal to submit to pressure to change her style or subject matter. He tells us that Nora was 'determined in the face of fashion and even the odd court martial (a reference to her refusing an order during her OWA Commission) to, as she puts it, "Stay on my own bus"'. It might be said that she was not always the driver of the bus, with her father and his friends each trying to take a turn to direct the young woman artist. The men interviewed by Meagher in the lead-up to the 2000 retrospective discuss this marginalisation and its possible causes, including her reluctance to self-promote and the central question of what it means for children to live in the shadow of a famous parent.

In 1989, Lou Klepac, the Australian curator and publisher, revived interest in Nora's work after years of what he calls 'considerable neglect' by the Australian art community. Klepac met with Nora to discuss an exhibition of her father's work in the mid 1980s and later he looked at her paintings. When he expressed surprise that she had never had a solo exhibition in the sixty years that she had lived in Sydney she responded, 'No-one ever asked. And I don't push myself'. The two became close friends. Klepac was a trusted advisor, advocate and manager of her work. In 1989 he published the monograph Nora Heysen and curated an exhibition of her work at S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney. When Klepac was curating her 2000 retrospective, then director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra, the late Andrew Sayers, was quoted by Meagher:

There is something unresolved in her work — that is the relationship of her work to her father's ... I hope that Klepac will bring to the exhibition the rigour that is necessary to really understand her.

Meagher also interviewed John McDonald, former head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), and he added:

It could be said that she is more important than we previously thought ... From the 1950s and the 1960s onwards the artists that impressed their reputation on people are the ones that made use of their social contacts ... she was not a pushy person ... Nora suffered the same problem that other children of famous painters have ... It's very hard to step out of the shadow of a famous father.

While researching her thesis in the mid 1990s on the subject of Nora's wartime work, Kate Nockels records that Nora revealed a long-held anxiety attached to always comparing herself with her father:

It wasn't that she was only successful because she was his daughter and that his influence worked in her favour, it was that she was always comparing herself ... 'in his shadow' was the phrase she would use and she was always trying to match him ... but she went on a different path and you couldn't really compare her still lifes with his landscapes.

Nora's uncertainty was finally addressed after Klepac revealed her work once more at her 1989 Sydney exhibition. In 1993 she received the Australia Council's Award for Achievement in the Arts, a Life Award designed to honour the life and work of eminent but under-recognised visual and craft artists. Klepac had arranged for her to be seen in her own terms and she responded: 'Well, I have produced enough work in my own way ... and I would be recognized as a painter separate from my father, I think that's true. I believe it is'.

Nora finally expressed acceptance of her artistic independence. She was eighty-three. Yet eight years later, the 'father–daughter' conversation was still open on the eve of her NLA retrospective. What in her work is 'unresolved' in Andrew Sayers' terms? Sixteen years after Sayers' observation, I put this question to the current director of the NPG, Angus Trumble, and his response was refreshing:

If it is true that Nora Heysen dwells in the shadow of her father then it's also true that an artist as great as, and underappreciated as, Orazio Gentileschi lives in the eternal shadow of his daughter Artemisia. So it can actually flow both ways, I think, particularly now when we are inclined to amp up every effort to magnify achievements of women artists for all the right reasons ... My inclination is to take a slightly different position to Andrew [Sayers] and say that Nora Heysen in this evolution of her posthumous reputation is easily able to take care of herself in respect of Hans.

Angus Trumble believes that Nora Heysen now occupies her proper place within the realm of Australian painters, seeing her as 'neither sidelined or over-emphasised'. He refers to the self portraits by Nora Heysen, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith that hang together in the NPG: 'The point that we make in that part of the display is a general one that it so happens that in various media, not just painting, modernism belatedly finds it way in Australian art, thanks to the efforts of women artists and those three are notables'. Trumble adds that there are other women who have contributed in this way and believes that the NPG has addressed what was a deficit. His final comment to me on Nora is telling:

It is interesting that she didn't sign her name Nora Black. She had the perfect opportunity to distance herself from the Heysen name when she married Robert Black but she chose not to. It would hardly be surprising if the matter vexed her that she felt both a need to acknowledge her father and his reputation and align herself with that but also be a little bothered about whether that was fair to herself. So it is a tension in her self-projection.

Even so, a change of name would not have been easy. Nora did not marry until she was in her forties. By then her professional name had been established for over twenty years in the eyes of the buying public. She was a woman attempting to produce work in a male-dominated profession, caught between using the name of either of the two men central to her life. Though she used her married name socially, she always signed her work Heysen. The fact that her father was a member of her chosen profession was a complicating factor.

While his daughter managed the role her heritage played in her life, Hans Heysen's own background and his success were a consequence of great tenacity and vision. His past offers us insight into the aspects of his life that had such a profound effect on him and subsequently the daughter that would follow him. Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen was born in 1877 in Hamburg, Germany, the sixth of seven children of Louis and Elize Heysen. Two older brothers, Gustav and Louis, died in infancy. His elder sister and two brothers and the youngest Heysen child, Valeska, survived. His parents were relatively secure and comfortable in the early years of their marriage. Louis was the son of a man wealthy enough to provide an education and, as Hans Heysen's biographer Colin Thiele suggests, wealthy enough to live 'a life of some distinction'. Thiele recorded Heysen's memories during a period when the writer was invited to live at The Cedars. Heysen was ninety and his recollections reveal that his father Louis was a man with a propensity for rash decisions and unwillingness to compromise, which would jeopardise what could have been a distinguished way of life. With the support of his own father, Louis became a retailer of sewing machines that could not compete with modern foreign models. The business failed and in the early 1880s he established two drapery stores also in Hamburg, though both of these met the same end. Louis was 'virtually bankrupt'and Elize opened a small drapery on the first floor of their home to keep the creditors at bay. It was then that Louis decided that Australia could provide a fresh start.

Thiele suggests that Louis's health, in particular problems with his lungs, provides the reason for his decision to immigrate to South Australia. Some also suggest his insolvency influenced his decision to leave his family and send for them a year later, once he was established. Emigration had its challenges. He could not make a success of the poor land that had been allotted to him through the land order system in South Australia, and by the time his family was to arrive in Port Adelaide, having left the comfort of their home and its gentle accoutrements, he was penniless. There was no home for them except a wooden hut with almost no furniture. On arriving at these lodgings, Elize's doubts and fears about leaving her home were realised when she entered the virtual slum dwelling that her husband had barely managed for his family's arrival. Before leaving Hamburg she almost wrote to say she was not immigrating to Australia, but her loyalty prevailed. Meanwhile, the former bookkeeper, one-time retailer, failed landholder, dismal accountant and unsuccessful speculative investor in Port Adelaide was now struggling to operate a fledgling pig and poultry run near Rosewater.

German immigration to Australia was initially a result of religious persecution. South Australia and Queensland were the main destinations, and in 1838 Pastor Kavel settled his Lutheran followers in Klemzig, South Australia. In November that same year Captain Dirk Hahn arrived with another 187 Lutheran Germans fleeing a royal edict that would force their church to combine with Calvinists to create a state church. Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III and his landowners were concerned about the power and influence of the clergy. Disobeying the edict of the king resulted in systematic persecution. Hahndorf, named for the Danish sea captain that delivered these religious refugees, maintains its German heritage today through the preservation of original buildings and as a busy tourist centre that celebrates its traditions. It would become home to the family of Hans Heysen seventy-three years after the captain's passengers walked alongside their wagons from the port to their future home in the Adelaide Hills.

Louis Heysen's decision to take his chances in the British colony appeared to be yet another error of judgement. But in time, in a desperate bid to provide for his family, he built up a business hawking fish twice a week from the port to Gawler, a settlement fifty kilometres inland. On the trip back to Adelaide, unsold fish were exchanged for eggs and butter that were promptly sold back in town. Finally Louis had a viable enterprise and he was able to purchase a horse and cart. His improved situation meant a series of different homes, each a better version than the last. It also meant school for the youngest children, Hans and Valeska. In 1889, six years after emigration, Louis Heysen finally bought a house. At the rear he set up his trading premises. For the first time since leaving Germany his family would experience a sense of security. He appeared in the Adelaide Directory as 'Produce Merchant, North Norwood'. During the intervening years Hans had attended different schools depending on where the family had taken up residence. In 1890 Hans was enrolled in the East Adelaide Model School where he completed his final days of education, leaving in September 1892 at the age of fourteen.

During these days Hans Heysen's talent for drawing was emerging. There were no formal art classes but in time Hans Heysen's appreciation of the natural world around him and his father's side business of horse-trading produced the drawings that alerted his family to his artistic talent. Louis Heysen bought unbroken horses from station owners, prepared them as best he could and sold them at a profit, keeping those he required to haul his produce carts. As a fourteen year old, stories of the Wild West and 'cowboys and Indians' fed Hans Heysen's imagination while his father's horses provided live models for sketches of an imagined, and sensationalised, American West.

Though his father enjoyed Hans's drawings, even collecting some of his best to keep as samples, no-one, not even Hans, considered art as a means of making a living. At almost fifteen he started work in a sawmill and hardware business, Cowell Bros, on Norwood Parade. Spare time was not plentiful. Hans was using his to engage with his art: 'People called it his hobby. The random sketching of his school days, taking on greater purpose, led him to charcoal and watercolour, and — in a moment of bold experimentation — to oils'. By the time he was sixteen Hans's work was being admired outside of the family and, according to Thiele, it 'had intruded itself sufficiently into the Heysen household to warrant some kind of official recognition'. He began art classes at the Norwood Art School run by James Ashton, the art master at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide. Ashton's tuition validated his gift as an artist and his sense of himself. It also brought him into contact with other artists, something that would not otherwise have happened in his everyday work life. Later in his life Hans would experience a great sense of satisfaction when he asked building contractor Cowell Bros, his first employer, to build his first studio. Hans had left the hardware company aged seventeen, when he and his father were both unhappy as, following two years of reliable work, old Mr Cowell refused to raise his five shilling weekly wage by two and a half shillings. Now Cowell's would do work for him.

Hans Heysen's artistic success was the result of an unusual combination of intelligence, natural skill and application. The encouragement of his family also played a central role. However, his situation was propitious. Adelaide was at that time a small city, and a prodigious talent was likely to be visible. His support came from varied sources: from South Australia's lieutenant governor to Pascoe the pawnbroker, to the philanthropic businessman, Robert Barr Smith, who paid Hans Heysen's tuition fees at the South Australian School of Design. For a time, Heysen juggled his obligations to his father and the produce delivery round with his commitment to his art. Meanwhile his sister Valeska's suitor Oscar Duhst, who was a barber, offered to promote his paintings by hanging them on his city shop walls, facing a regular and captive audience of interested men about town, ready to discuss the merits of the work. The Heysen name became known and sales immediately resulted. During the early period of his career from 1895 to 1899 his work was consistently exhibited and appreciated in Australia; a major surge of recognition came when Ashton submitted a selection of works by his students to the Royal Drawing Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Heysen won first prize with a watercolour landscape, selected as the outstanding work of the year from entries representing 124 art schools across the Empire, as well as winning other prizes in related sections. The works were held over by the organisers to be displayed at national exhibitions and the Paris Exhibition of 1900. He was an extraordinary draughtsman but his ability to represent light in the Australian landscape made his work unusual and exciting. After receiving steady recognition in his home town and abroad, in 1899 four South Australian patrons contributed to a fund that would allow him to study and paint in Europe for four years, facilitating the formal transition to a career as an artist, a somewhat unexpected development for him and his family.


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Copyright © 2019 Anne-Louise Willoughby.
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Table of Contents

List of abbreviations 6

Preface 7

Introduction: Nora speaks 9

1 In the name of the father 16

2 The Cedars 26

3 Art school, two deals and painting herself 52

4 Truth, art and Hitler 88

5 Pissarro, Evie and those other men 105

6 Nora takes her leave 143

7 Mad Max, Mary and the Archibald 159

8 War and love 181

9 Rations and revisitations 232

10 Letters from a friend 261

11 Marriage, home and another woman 281

12 Sacred ground 319

Epilogue 339

Works mentioned 340

List of illustrations 343

Notes 347

Index 375

Acknowledgements 382

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