Elise Blumann by Simeran Maxwell

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

All good art has an expression translated through the experience of the artist.(1)

Self‑portrait 1937 was painted during a transitional period in the artist’s life. Elise Blumann fled Nazi Germany in 1934, first to the Netherlands and then on to England where this work was made, before finally settling in Perth, Western Australia. Here she places herself, fashionably dressed in matching blouse and hat, in front of the Thames Estuary at Thorpe Bay in Essex. The landscape behind her is divided into horizontal bands of delicate pink, blue and green, using distinctive brushwork to inject subtle vertical intonations, especially in her treatment of water. The strips or bars of colour seen in Self‑portrait are the early germination of a decorative device that appears in many of her works made in Australia from 1938 onwards. While portraiture, and more broadly the figure, remained an important staple in her work, she made no further self‑portraits after she settled in Perth. Instead portraits of close family were important in anchoring her memories of family back in Germany, as well as her children growing up. The combination of landscape and figure was a pictorial device Blumann used throughout her career.

The experiences of her life, first in Europe and later in Perth, are rooted in Blumann’s work. In Berlin she had been taught by Max Liebermann, who led the Berliner Secession, and she melded her European modernist ideas with her new surroundings. Landscapes, initially of the trees along the Swan River near her home in Nedland, became a mainstay of her oeuvre. Although she always refuted the label of expressionist, she acknowledged that her work reflected her emotional reactions to her subjects. Entranced by the extraordinarily different colours of light in Perth she developed a distinctive palette of warm sandy, ochre hues which she often juxtaposed against the colours of the local flora and blue of either sky or water.

I remember so well that drive from Fremantle when we arrived. The Norfolk pines and the blackboys, they fascinated me. The landscape made an immediate impression on me; and the light. The country I loved at once. But the people: that took longer!(2)

Blumann stepped into a seemingly regressive artistic environment in Perth where her style of European modernism met with confusion. Describing the reaction of a prudish gallery visitor: ‘when she saw behind my back at the end of the gallery a nude woman nearly life‑size she couldn’t get quickly enough out of the gallery.’(3) Nevertheless she persisted and formed the Perth Art Group to stimulate interest in modern art. The group later merged with the Art Gallery Society in 1951 and Blumann found an early supporter in the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s curator George Pitt Morison.

(1) Elise Blumann, ‘An edited interview with Elise Blumann by David Bromfield on 25 July 1984’, in Elise Blumann: Paintings & drawings 1918–1984, Centre for Fine Arts, University of Western Australia, Perth, 1984, p 23.

(2) Blumann quoted in Carolyun Pilizzotto, Approaching Elise, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1988, p 74.

(3) Blumann in Elise Blumann: Paintings & drawings 1918–1984, p 25.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Maxwell, Simeran. "Elise Blumann" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 48–49.

Elise Blumann appears in