Love, loss and photography
7 May – 14 August 2005
Margaret Michaelis: love, loss and photography, an illustrated biography and exhibition by guest curator Helen Ennis, will be launched at 11.30 am on Saturday 14 May at the National Gallery of Australia by author and media commentator David Marr.
Margaret Michaelis’s story is one that belongs to the twentieth century. A Jewish modernist photographer, her life was shaped by momentous historical events: the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain, and the outbreak of World War II. After settling in Australia she suffered acute personal losses and challenges in finding a new path for her art and life.
Like numerous other émigrés forced into exile, Michaelis arrived in Australia with very few possessions. However, she did manage to bring examples of the photographic work she had produced in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, including a small but intense series of images taken in the Jewish quarter in Cracow, that now carry the weight of history. Her other European photos include documentation of a radical modernist architectural group’s revitalisation of Barcelona; many of these outstanding photos were published in leading modernist journals of the time.
Margaret Michaelis was an advocate of modernist photography, or the New Photography style, which utilised sharp focus and often unexpected vantage points. She trained in Vienna in the 1920s, where she developed her love for portraiture. She was interested in the psychological dimension of her sitters and saw photography as the ideal means for revealing the subject’s essence or inner reality. Some of her most successful portraits are of Australian artists; for example, those of sculptor Lyndon Dadswell, painter Weaver Hawkins and writer Cynthia Reed.
Throughout her life Michaelis kept personal items, including a bundle of letters from her first husband, Rudolf Michaelis, an anti-fascist activist in Europe who was imprisoned for his beliefs. The letters map the course of their relationship, from the first love letters of the 1930s; to the colder, more formal letters outlining their separation and divorce; to the final letters, from the late 1960s, which deal with recovering lost memories and making peace with the past.
Guest curator Helen Ennis is Senior Lecturer, Art Theory at the Australian National University School of Art. She was Curator of Photography when Michaelis’s photographs and letters were donated to the National Gallery of Australia, forming an extensive archive. Through her research Ennis uncovered an incredible story of love, politics, photography and survival. Her extensively illustrated biography weaves together aspects of Michaelis’s professional and personal life, using a deliberately personal tone.