This weekend, as part of Open Melbourne 2017, I visited a few historic properties starting with a group of corrugated-iron houses in South Melbourne that were saved from demolition by the National Trust. These portable homes were shipped out from the UK in the mid-1800s, during the Gold Rush, when tent dwellings were springing up to accommodate fortune hunters.
Forerunners of IKEA furniture, these dwellings were labelled, numbered, flat-packed in wooden crates and shipped overseas. The wood from the crates was used for wall linings, floor boards and partitions – you can still see the initials of one of the property speculators RP (Robert Patterson), on one of the walls at 399 Coventry Street. Abercrombie House (originally from North Melbourne) was moved onto the Coventry Street block by the National Trust in two halves to save the many layers of wallpaper that tell the story of how the house evolved over time.
But the stand-out property was the Duldig Studio, a house museum in Malvern East, once home to émigré artists Slawa Horowitz-Duldig and Karl Duldig who settled in Melbourne after World War II. Forced to leave Vienna at the time of the Anschluss in 1938, the Duldigs settled in Melbourne after 18 months in Singapore and two years in the Tatura internment camp. Both Viennese modernists, Karl was a sculptor and Slawa a sculptor and painter. One of Karl’s sculpted masks is owned by the NGV in Melbourne.
Slawa was not only a successful artist– she trained at two prestigious art schools in Vienna – she also invented the first foldable umbrella and there are prototypes of her ‘Flirt’ model on display at the Burke Street property. Fleeing Nazism, Slawa was, however, forced to sell the rights to her umbrella, but the royalties she had earned paid for furniture which she designed and had custom made. With rooms in the house opened up specially for Open Melbourne 2017, we got to see her furniture.
And this is what makes the story of this couple so extraordinary. Before they fled Austria, Slawa saved everything from their apartment in Vienna, and her sister Aurelie known as Rella, hid everything away in a cellar in Paris, keeping a meticulous inventory of every item. Even more amazingly, their cache escaped detection by the Nazis and was shipped to Australia on the aptly named Rembrandt in the 1950s.
They kept everything from dining settings to their artworks, furniture, silk curtains, lamps, ceramics, sculptures and books. Given they lost all their family bar Rella to the Holocaust, it’s consoling that their possessions survived. It’s not as if they were hanging on to clutter – I am thinking of Marie Kondo here, Queen of Life Laundry and author of The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, whose rule of thumb is to keep things only if they spark joy. The Duldigs were people for whom art was a way of life – Karl carved a sculpture out of a potato while they were in Tatura – and everything around them was an expression of their artistic sensibility.
Part of the Secession Movement (formed by a group of Viennese artists including Gustav Klimt in 1897), which represented a move away from more traditional and conservative forms, the Duldigs created interiors where everything was designed to be beautiful and part of the artistic whole – even their dog had a Persian carpet bed! Materials were incorporated into the design in such a way that they were seen – from the Salzburg stone supporting a sculpture and lattice leather straps in a chair designed by Slawa to the grain of the wood on their hand-crafted bedroom wardrobe. Even their china and dinnerware survived the high seas from the chunky ceramic coffee cups and plates in the living room to the fine blue, white and gold china in the dining room. Throughout the house the mixture of art forms – from primitive to African, Asian and classical – is characteristic of the modernist aesthetic.
At the back of the property are the sculpture garden and Karl’s studio, complete with kiln, coloured dies in jars (the couple were also both ceramicists and took commissions) and a bakelite phone, the receiver still crusted with dried clay. Just as it would have been when Karl was working, the studio remains packed with maquettes as well as finished works in wood, bronze and clay. Both Slawa and Karl taught to supplement their earnings – Slawa at St Catherine’s, where she inspired many of her students to pursue their love of art.
Shortly before her death Slawa told her daughter Eva de Jong-Duldig, who is now in her 70s and a patron of the Duldig Studio, not to throw anything away and to keep everything. Accordingly, their family home was opened to the public in 1996 and is now a museum and art gallery. Leaving us a rich legacy and insight into their creative lives in Vienna, Singapore and Australia the museum owes its existence to their practice of documenting and curating their lives with passion and purpose.
Among the sculptures and paintings on display are some of the letters Slawa exchanged with her sister, Rella, over a period of 30 years. The sisters only met up again once in the 1960s so these letters are a poignant reminder of a time when hand-written correspondence was central to people’s lives, helping to overcome separation and distance.
And, most moving of all, is Karl’s simple but heartfelt love letter to Slawa, written after her death in 1975, describing their life together “as a continuous musik.” (Karl’s German spelling of music). How heartening it is to see the essence of the Duldigs and their cultural contribution preserved for future generations.