Ludmilla Meilert’s rightful position in Australian art history has been denied due to a lack of penetrative research, combined with the fact that a genuine attempt to align her works with those of her peers has never been fully undertaken. As a result, her important contributions are insufficiently recorded or appreciated. However I firmly believe that a more thorough examination of her life and career, between the late 1930’s until 1987, will reveal her to be a far superior painter than has been previously acknowledged.
In an attempt to redress this situation, I will analyse the artist’s early life, participation in important exhibitions during the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, along with acquisitions of her work by Australian State galleries. In addition, I wish to present a new evaluation of her success and continued participation in the prestigious Dunlop Art prize between 1950 and 1954. Then I shall examine the important role she played as a senior artist in the Victorian Artists’ Society’s (VAS) special exhibitions during the 1950s and early 1960s. I will discuss her later period, from the 1970s until the publication of her biography in 1987, and finally consider the various influences upon her work.
The life journey of Latvian-born Ludmilla Meilerts was as rich as the canvases she painted. She underwent extensive art training in various European countries, witnessed bitter events in her native Latvia during the Second World War, before treading a path of intense personal struggle to become a recognized artist. Meilerts first studied art at the Latvian Academy of Fine Arts in Riga, graduating in 1940. It was at the Academy that she conducted her first experimentation with colour. She became heavily influenced by the head of the school, Professor Wilhelm Purvitis, who was acknowledged as the country’s leading landscape painter and a devout follower of French Impressionism.
Her progression as an artist during the late 1930’s and mid 1940s saw Meilerts undertake travel studies in Greece, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Sweden, Lithuania, Italy, France and Germany. After the Second World War, with the Soviet occupation of Latvia inevitable, she and her husband fled to a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, within Germany’s American occupation zone. It was here in Stuttgart, during August 1946, that she held her first solo exhibition. Although she participated in successful group shows in Germany, at Esslingen, Altenstadt and Baden-Baden, the prospect of becoming a recognised artist in Europe did not appear too promising. So like many others the couple decided to migrate and build a better life.
Ludmilla Meilerts arrived in Australia, on 19 February 1948, to find the art world of her new homeland experiencing major changes. The Australian art scene of the late 1940s was divided between European formality and the search for an Australian identity. William Dobell portrayed typical Australians. Russell Drysdale sought to change the Australian palette by introducing red landscapes laden with heat depicting rural poverty. Sidney Nolan looked to tell bushranger Ned Kelly’s story as that of Australia’s own struggle for self-determination. And Expressionism had become the language used by the Australian Moderns to translate the new direction. With her European training and free palette, Meilerts was fully equipped to assert a position in what was at that time the fluid world of Antipodean art.
She began to exhibit in an exciting period of Australian Modernism. In August 1948 she was invited to show three works at the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Artists in Sydney. This was one of the most important exhibitions of the late 1940’s. Previously this exhibition has never been fully examined with regard to Meilerts but, as I believe new research will reveal, it will prove of major significance to the artist’s early career. This was the first time Russell Drysdale exhibited The Cricketers, a painting which has become an icon in Australian art. The radical departure this work caused in the country’s art circles was immediately seen by observers. Commenting on Drysdale’s bold new vision of Australia, the art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: Drysdale’s large composition of “cricketers” under leaden skies in the wide open spaces of burning sands dramatises the “outback” as it has never been dramatised before.
To have been part of this watershed exhibition together with Drysdale placed all artists concerned, including the recently arrived Meilerts, at the beginning of a brave new era in Australian art.
Just as importantly, the Sydney exhibition introduced Ludmilla Meilerts and her work to the Australian art public by presenting her as an equal to many of the country’s major artists. Her co-exhibitors in Sydney in 1948 included, as mentioned Drysdale, Weaver Hawkins, George Lawrence, Lloyd Rees, Joshua Smith, Arthur Murch, Roland Wakelin, Adrian Feint, John Santry, Donald Friend, Douglas Dundas, William Dobell, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, Sali Herman, Elaine Haxton, George Bell, Francis Lymburner, Margaret Olley, Alison Rehfisch, Kenneth MacQueen, Thea Proctor, Freda Robertshaw and Charles Meere. The exhibition was opened by Daryl Lindsay, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
In August-September of 1948 Meilerts was also invited to exhibit with
the Independent Group of Artists at their Annual Exhibition, held at Melbourne’s
Athenaeum Gallery. Again, although relatively unknown to the Australian
art scene, her work was judged of sufficient quality to be hung alongside
leading painters including Lina Bryans, Charles Bush, Norman MacGeorge,
James Quinn, Dora Serle, Eveline Syme and Constance Stokes.
Around this time Meilerts gained an important supporter, the Director of the NGV, Daryl Lindsay. In April of 1949 he he encouraged Meilerts to hold her first Australian solo exhibition at Georges Gallery in Melbourne. The show was a great success. The Age art critic saw the potential of her interpretation to change Australian landscape and genre painting:
'Her style is distinctive; the colour harmonies are sensitively rendered. Furthermore the artist has shown that a fresh vision may find material in the local scene capable of being rendered to a higher chromatic range than was hitherto suspected. Both her flower pieces and landscapes go beyond a visual record and express the quintessence of her subject.'
The critic from the Argus also praised her work in this exhibition:
'Meilerts paints in a Continental impressionistic style, mainly in bright colours, and with a masterly technique which enables her to paint landscapes and flower pictures with equal facility and grace. It is a high class show.'
Lindsay purchased a painting from this show for the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection. In August of 1949 this work, Flowers, was included in an important exhibition held at the National Gallery to mark the refurbishment of the La Trobe Gallery. Along with the Gallery’s major Colonial and Heidelberg School paintings, Meilerts and other young artists whose work had recently been acquired by the Gallery, were hung for the first time. This number included Roland Wakelin, Margaret Preston and Elaine Haxton. Their paintings were placed in the exhibition’s Contemporary Bay, along with works by William Frater, Drysdale, Stokes and Arnold Shore. Ludmilla Meilerts had truly arrived on the Australian art scene. Her work was positioned on a level with the best contemporary artists of the period. In the light of this success her work came under the notice of State Galleries. The NGV purchased a second picture in 1950. Hobart’s Tasmanian Art Gallery purchased a painting, Palm, from the VAS’s 1952 Autumn Exhibition and the Art Gallery of Western Australia acquired a work, Roses, in 1955.
Recognition of her solo exhibition followed. She held the first of several successful solo shows at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1950 and also a solo in Sydney during the same year. Two leading Melbourne artist-critics, Alan McCulloch (1907 – 1992) and Alan Warren (1919 – 1991), covered her exhibitions during these years, bestowing praise and criticism alike, all of which helped to promote her art.
McCulloch discussed the artist’s approach to Colourism, when he
reviewed a solo exhibition at the Athenaeum in 1951:
'The colour resembles the pure colour used in the early paintings of the Fauves…'
Warren also attempted to categorize Meilerts’s style when he described
her paintings at the same show:
'They explode with rainbow hues. She uses shows of confetti-like dots of rich colour, which are French in derivation. Her Pointillism combines sensitive observation with sound construction. She possesses a gift for colour orchestration.'
Alan McCulloch declared in 1954:
'In the few years she has been in this country, Ludmilla Meilerts, formerly of Latvia, has become one of our best known women painters.'
However, the major achievement for Meilerts during this decade has, until now, been vastly under-researched and subsequently unacknowledged. I refer to her initial success and continued participation in the prestigious Dunlop Art Prize between 1950 and 1954. The Dunlop Art Contest was a major, nation-wide prize conducted in Melbourne and sponsored by the Dunlop Rubber Co. (Australia) Ltd. In the Contest’s inaugural year, total prize money amounted to 850 pounds making it the richest art prize in Australia. It replaced the Archibald Prize, which was 600 pounds, as the nation’s most lucrative art award. The aim of the Dunlop Art Contest was to foster contemporary Australian art on aesthetic merits alone.
To achieve this goal, Dunlop appointed a panel of highly qualified judges,
chaired by NGV Director Daryl Lindsay. The panel consisted of Hal Missingham,
Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Lawrence Thomas, Assistant Director
of the NGV, Prof. Jospeh Burke, Professor of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne
and artists Louis McCubbin, OBE Member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory
Board. Later judging panels included prominent artists such as Will Ashton,
Robert Campbell and William Dargie.
At Dunlop’s inaugural Contest in 1950, from a total of 800 entries, Ludmilla Meilerts was selected as one of the 48 finalists. That year she and Fred Williams shared equal fifth prize. First prize was won by Sidney Nolan, second by William Frater, with Arthur Boyd third and Charkes Bush and Len Annois sharing fourth. Meilerts’ work had been judged as comparable with the best artists in Australia.
She was also chosen as a finalist for the Dunlop Prize in 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1954. In each of those years her fellow finalists included artists of such high calibre as Fred Williams, Ian Armstrong, Arthur Boyd, Jeffrey Smart, Guy Grey-Smith, John Passmore, Lawrence Daws, Louis Kahan, Robert Dickerson, Michael Shannon, Lloyd Rees and Sali Herman. Her initial success in 1950 and continued participation in Dunlop finalist exhibitions placed Ludmilla Meilerts at the forefront of Australian art during those years.
Meilerts’s strong position in the Australian art world at that time
is also seen in her selection for important VAS group shows in the 1950’s
and early 1960’s.
At various times the VAS held special exhibitions, inviting leading Australian painters to join a select group of their senior artists. In 1951 Meilerts participated in An Exhibition of Present Day Art in Victoria. Her co-exhibitors included Bush, Frater, Bryans, Dargie, Shore, Lindsay, Bell, Armstrong, Stokes, Williams, Thake and Kemp.
Another such exhibition held in 1958, the Special Exhibition of Painting & Sculpture, saw her work alongside John Perceval, Clifton Pugh and Lawrence Daws. Again in 1959, in association with the Australian and new Zealand Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament, the VAS held the Festival Art Competition: Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture. On this occasion Ludmilla’s co-exhibitors included Arthur Boyd, Ray Crooke, Len French, James Gleeson and Elwyn Lynn. Her participation in the annual VAS shows of the early 1960s also adds to her stature. In 1962 she showed at the Autumn Exhibition with many senior artists. Including Noel Counihan and James Wigley. Then at the 1965 Spring Exhibition she exhibited with William Dargie and Bill Coleman.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the artist heightened the colours of her palette and was justly rewarded. In 1971 she won the prestigious Gosford Art Prize, judged by Daniel Thomas and awarded by Sir Russell Drysdale. In 1982 the VAS presented her with the coveted Pirstitz Gold Medal awarded to honour her contribution to the Society and to Australian art.
With the help of her lifetime friend, Valentins Sloss, she published a
biography, entitled Meilerts, in 1987. Sir William Dragie contributed the
preface, praising her achievements as an artist:
'Despite the enormous personal difficulties faced by the artist, the work of Ludmilla Meilerts is a celebration of life. It is a statement of joy in colour and an aesthetic involvement in “the floating world” of contemporary visual experience which to the end of the artist’s life shows no diminution of a zest one usually associates only with youth.'
Her acceptance of the natural world as the basis of her mode of expression is not-as many modern critics would have it-an indication of superficiality. It is, rather, a vindication of Oscar Wilde’s profound statement, “only appearances don’t deceive”.
I could wish her example and her work had received more official recognition
in Australia. However, her paintings are the public domain and will endure;…
Dargie. In fact, outlines the injustice Meilerts has encountered at the hands of art historians and critics alike, when they have attempted to define her art and align her within the context of post-war Australian art history. Since her arrival in Australia in 1948 art writers have debated on the particular sources they believe influenced her work. In early exhibitions commentators claimed her influence stemmed from French Impressionism. Later on Pointillism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Neo-Impressionism were all advocated. In recent years art historian Juliet Peers entered the debate, citing European Expressionism as a source.
In 1993, when discussing Meilerts’s role in the Melbourne Society
of Women Painters and Sculptors, Peers wrote:
'One of the most important artists was Ludmilla Meilerts. Her heritage can be traced back to the sources of middle European Expressionism. Her art is saturated with the vibrating colours of the earliest hedonistic period of Expressionism, when German artists were building upon the lead of the Impressionists and Fauves in France; abstracting and intensifying the colours and making the brush strokes expressive participants in the effect of the painting, more than a means of transcription. Ludmilla freely interprets the colours of nature, blue tree trunks, cream and mauve skies, purple grass.'
Interestingly enough Ludmilla Meilerts herself provided some clues to her influences. In a 1949 interview she named Corot, Manet, Monet and Cezanne as painters she admired. Recently her biographer, Valentins Sloss, reflected on conversations with the artist concerning her love of Renoir, Seurat, Degas and Utrillo; in particular her admiration for the way Monet painted water, that most difficult of subjects. At other times she spoke of her admiration for Arthur Boyd and Russell Drysdale. She was amazed by Drysdale’s 1941 work Moody’s Pub, by the way he had been able to intensify colour. Arthur Boyd’s desert scenes also intrigued her – particularly how Boyd achieved perspective through the use of colour.
Perhaps this points to a wonderful kind of mystique in her art. In many ways Meilerts, by adopting an almost indefinable style. Her persistent use of loose form and bold colours presents a totally unique interpretation of Australian subjects. After being fully prepared to translate her new homeland in the popular Expressionist language of the late 1940s, she strove to achieve an even further reduction of form by colour to create her own identity. This was a move which has set her apart from other Australian artists of her generation. Even with her extensive formal training, she seems to have possessed an almost instinctive response to colour. Although she exhibited with Australia’s leading artists during the 1940s, 1950s and beyond, Ludmilla has remained free of rigid definition. Ludmilla Meilerts (1908 – 1997) should be described as a truly natural painter of outstanding originality.
Stephen F. Mead, MA
For Kozminsky Art