Katharine Margot Toohey’s Vera Rudner

Katharine Margot Toohey, Vera Rudner: A Study (Quemar Press 2018)

A friend of mine (and no, this isn’t urban legend) recently attended a lecture on Australian modernist art at a mainstream tertiary institution in Sydney. The lecturer managed not to mention a single woman. When my friend protested, and rattled off a list of women who were crucial to the history, the lecturer was unapologetic.

Early this year at a prestigious Melbourne gallery, the same friend was lamenting the almost complete absence of women painters in a large exhibition of 20th century Australian art. Then we walked into one of the smaller rooms, and there they were, scores of them, crowded onto the walls four or five high without space for so much as a descriptive label: if you wanted to see who painted that sock knitter or that bridge in curve you had to consult an iPad chained to a seat in the middle of the room and scroll through the list. So the ladies had a room to themselves, all hugger mugger, and the real male artists, were shown as individuals.

It seems our institutions may have some trouble giving Australian women artists their due.

This tiny, almost zine-like book from Quemar Press is doing its bit to kick against the trend.

Vera Rudner, born in Berlin in 1922, fled the Nazis with her Jewish family and arrived in Australia in 1938. She studied painting at the aforementioned Sydney tertiary institution, among others, and painted a number of striking surrealist works before she stopped painting in 1948.

Two of her paintings are held in the National Gallery of Australia. Four are in the artist’s possession. One is known to have been destroyed – actually burned – because, according to the woman who inherited it, it ‘scared her grandchildren’. She hasn’t been completely ignored in the literature of Australian art, but she remained in relative – almost complete – obscurity until Jennifer Maiden’s poem ‘Sacrilege’ appeared in her collection, Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017, link is to my blog post). It introduces Vera as a friend of some decades, and focuses on her painting for which the poem is named. It begins:

                I fear not doing her justice; however,
for a long time I've wanted to write a poem about Vera

That poem, and ‘Be Back in the Morning or Diary Poem: Uses of Toys’, named for another of Rudner’s paintings and published in Maiden’s brookings: the noun (Quemar 2019), are reprinted in this book, evocative amplifications of Katharine Margot Toohey’s prose.

The text of the book is in three parts. First is a brief biography presented as an extended captions to a series of photos – snaps of Rudner as a child movie actor (the movies were all destroyed by the Nazis), of a framed wedding photo; an exhibition catalogue; the cover of a book that mentions her work; and a recent shot of her with Jennifer Maiden. The second is a short general essay, and the third an explication of the six paintings that Katharine Margot Toohey has access to.

There are two colour photographs of each of the paintings, and a number of details in black and white. These are enough to whet the appetite to see the actual paintings, but because of the perennial problem of reproducing paintings as tiny illustrations and getting the colour right, it’s hard to feel they do much more than that. For example, the cover photograph of Suburbia (1945) has a predominantly blue-grey pallet; both internal reproductions are mainly warm yellows and oranges.

Some sections of the book are available online at Quemar’s website (click here), where the images seem much less problematic. If, like me, you’re vaguely aware of an ache in your brain where the history of women artists should be stored, I recommend you have a look.

Vera Rudner: A Study is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’m grateful to Quemar Press for my copy.

2 responses to “Katharine Margot Toohey’s Vera Rudner

  1. Thanks for saying Quemar ‘kick[s] against the trend’. Rudner’s vivid work has a essential place in Australian Post-War Surrealism, and we’re proud you feel the book inputs analysis into the void you mention. It was wonderful to write about the humanity and agency in Rudner’s work. If Surrealism isn’t presented in public in all its aspects, including its women artists, aspects of its use as a phenomenological tool would be shut away. For example, the book discusses how in Rudner’s work an indefinite shape of colour or a usually inanimate domestic object is animate with vibrant agency, giving the viewer a new way of understanding objects and spaces in the world around them. About Rudner’s vibrant colour-scheme: she is pleased with the reproductions in this book and feels they’re accurate. The cover art involving a titled, otherworldly picture of her painting Surburbia is the same painting taken in different lighting and at a different angle to create a ‘cool and intricately ice-like and crystalline’ Surrealist mood for the cover. Quemar ran this past Rudner and she liked this new picture for the cover.
    I liked how you pointed out the book isn’t a zine – we created it as a portable, accessible art book with perfect binding and an ISBN. Rudner has said she likes the way the book fits in her handbag.
    Quick date correction: Jennifer Maiden’s ‘brookings: the noun’ is actually just released in 2019, not 2018.
    Best Wishes to Me Fail? I Fly! for the New Year,
    Katharine Margot Toohey
    Quemar Press


    • Thanks for commenting, Katharine, and for clarifying the intentions behind the different palettes. I’ve corrected the date on brookings: the noun – feeling a little relieved that the book has been reproaching me from the To Be Read pile for less time than I thought.


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