Rayner Hoff

Rayner Hoff’s life and work exemplify the “true” spirit of modernism as an intellectual, social and aesthetic engagement. Hoff embodies the socially acceptable accoutrements of Australian society with an inherent “Eurocentric” respectability[1] which was of demonstrable importance to so many Caucasian Australian artists reputations[2]. Numerous examples of this social phenomenon demonstrate that modernist “artists” from Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston to Leonora Gregory (Finn 2017) and Florence Broadhurst recognised that success in Australia required a Eurocentric myth (O'Neill 2011) that was obtained by leaving Australia. This is evident in Chica Lowe’s “Merioola[3]” artists of whom “significantly, the majority…, …left Australia to enlarge the ranks of Australian expatriates” (France 1986).

Figure 1: Thea Proctor illustrations for Art in Australia, 1925. Woodcuts, 80 x 75, 95x150mm.

Rayner Hoff immigrated to Australia in 1923 and rose in stature to be the most successful Australian public sculptor of the period. Born in the UK in 1894, he served and fought in France in WW1. He became head of the National Art School (ESTC Art Department) in the 1930’s (Beck 2005, 195). His work and training (Nottingham School of Design, Royal College of Art - London) were classically derived but he synthesised his own theories of art to combine “Classicism”, “Vitalism” (Larkin 1999, 2008) and “Art Deco” elements to produce a uniquely Australian vision of heroic realist art (Beck 2005, 119). Influenced by his experience of war, Hoff rejected Italian Futurism and it’s right leaning  “lustmorte”, machine gimmicks, speed, movement and explosions to embrace a more affirming regionalist tendency (Hughes 1991, 6) based in a “New Athens” utopian sensibility. Inherent in Hoff’s corpus is the definition of modernism being fundamentally intellectual and secondarily aesthetic.

Figure 2: Rayner Hoff portrait by Harold Cazneaux 1924, Source: https://portrait.gov.au/portrait.php?portraitID=1328

Hoff’s work is stylistically Art Deco but modernism was more than stylistic, aesthetic affectations, a point reiterated by Bernard Smith in his Antipodean Manifesto (Smith 1959). Modernism was many things but primarily it is the introduction of polemic and social critique into western art and an intellectual and spiritual continuation of renaissance enquiry; although frequently informed by esoterica and pseudo-science. Hoff’s oeuvre can be described as a need to communicate the perils of the age as well as solutions. Optimism saturates his work in the form of sexual energy and despite themes of war, loss and suffering, it rejects the existential crisis, cynicism and despair that permeates many European modernist works such as Munch. That can be attributed to the influence of Henri Bergson whose “vitalism” was a philosophy of generational renewal (similar to ideas put forward by the Theosophical Society and Golden Dawn) and self-realisation, joy and creation (Bergson, Ansell-Pearson and Kolkman 2019, 29). Bergson is a contrast to the “vitalism” of Nietzsche who embraced existentialism and was co-opted by forces beyond any control.

Figure 3: Drawing for the March of the Dead (provenance not supplied). Source: This Vital Flesh: The Sculpture of Rayner Hoff.

Eugenics theories which informed Nazi ideology were embraced in the Antipodes in heroic realism; Dr Christopher Allen describes and obfuscates this point when he specifically refers to Hoff’s works as “serve(ing) the nationalistic ideal of developing a pure, healthy race of Australians” (Allen 1997, 93-94). Hoff is not unique in the oeuvre of heroic realism, its ideals are reiterated in the work of Arthur Murch “Beach Idyll” (1930) and in Charles Meere “Australian Beach Pattern” (1940) but seldom explicitly identified as a regionalised “National Socialist Heroic Realism” despite a clear connection to the racial and eugenics theories of the 1800 – 1900’s.

Figure 4: Idyll, Love and Life 1923-26 (detail). Art Gallery of NSW.

Dubious foundations formed Australian modernism and are frequently sidestepped by academics and post war artists who transcended and rejected those inconvenient origins along with the stifling classicism of Salon and academic painting which filled the homes of the wealthy (Anderson 2004, 93-94).

Figure 5: Sacrifice, War Memorial Hyde Park Sydney. Hoff Estate. Source: https://www.anzacmemorial.nsw.gov.au/our-stories/sculpture-hoff

“Blut and Boden” (Bramwell 1985, 24) ideology is another inconvenience which permeates Australian modernism and which is easily located in the work of Hoff as well as Christian and Napier Waller alongside many interwar years artists. Like Hoff, they took a philosophical view of heroic realism which they distilled through the lens of the theosophical society and the esoteric conceptions of the “Golden Dawn Movement” (Gallery 1978, 2). The tradition of esoteric inspiration continued to influence later Australian artists such as Rosaleen Norton through the 40’s into the 70’s and is readily identified as an influence by Brett Whitely (in personal conversation).

Figure 6: Christian Waller, The Great Breath, Gryphon Press 1978 (personal collection).

Hoff’s works, a stylistic refinement of Art Deco is hardly cutting-edge modernity, but the vitalist theoretical framework is its esoteric and intellectual foundation that combines with intention to be appropriately attributed to the rise of Australian modernism (Edwards et al. 1999, 18-19). Rainer Hoff, despite the ambient and overt sexism of the period (despite an exploitative relationship to his female students by today’s standards) embraced the foundations of feminist thought within his conceptual framework (Edwards et al. 1999, 21). His expression of feminism rallied against social norms to embrace a vitalist intellectual polemic which he depicts in his work. An overtly sexualised eugenic conception permeates and concentrates upon the feminine burden and human loss. It was no more explicit than any of the “best Victorian pornography” (Hughes 1966, 82) which fill Australian galleries but it is differentiated by intention and intellect. 

Figure 7: Art in Australia issue 12, June 1925 (Personal Collection)

Artists such as Proctor and Preston can be described as modernist by accident, slipping into the milieu as populists with a readily digestible aesthetic for the public to embrace. Hoff in contrast embraced the intellectual fight which arose from the trenches and embraced eugenics and which countered classical ideals of male heroicism and loss. Hughes definition of Modernism which he presents through Picasso’s statement “I paint forms as I think them, not as I see them,” (Hughes 1991, 64) is an elegant way of illuminating that meaning and intention (not aesthetics) are the drivers for modernist art.

It is easy to look upon modernism with a cynical eye, to define it as an exercise in economics, a “soft power” tussle and the aesthetics of status. For Australia, modernism was a philosophical, optimistic, social critique that illuminated a struggling identity and offered ethical and social comprehensions to the Antipodean world. For work with substance that extended beyond aesthetic concerns and a historicity which built beyond existing social status; we generally turn to later artists such as Tucker, Bergner, Counihan, Drysdale, Gleeson and Klippel. Much of what we term modernist in Australian art was simply pretty pictures and the distinction within the fine-arts is “vital”.

Figure 8: Rayner Hoff, In Vain the Christian, 1928. Source: This Vital Flesh: The Sculpture of Rayner Hoff

 

 

Image Credits:

Figure 1: Thea Proctor illustrations for Art in Australia, 1925. Woodcuts, 80 x 75, 95x150mm.

Figure 2: Figure 2: Rayner Hoff portrait by Harold Cazneaux 1924, Source: https://portrait.gov.au/portrait.php?portraitID=1328

Figure 3: Drawing for the March of the Dead (provenance not supplied). Source: This Vital Flesh: The Sculpture of Rayner Hoff.

Figure 4: Idyll, Love and Life 1923-26 (detail). Art Gallery of NSW.

Figure 5: Sacrifice, War Memorial Hyde Park Sydney. Hoff Estate. Source: https://www.anzacmemorial.nsw.gov.au/our-stories/sculpture-hoff

Figure 6: Christian Waller, The Great Breath, Gryphon Press 1978 (personal collection)

Figure 7: Art in Australia issue 12, June 1925 (Personal Collection)

Figure 8: Rayner Hoff, In Vain the Christian, 1928. Source: This Vital Flesh: The Sculpture of Rayner Hoff

 

References:

Art in Australia (A Quarterly Magazine). Number 12, June 1925.
The Great Breath (220x400mm), Christian Waller, Gryphon Press 1978.

Citations:

Allen, C. 1997. Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism: Thames and Hudson.

Anderson, Patricia. 2004. Art + Australia : Debates, Dollars & Delusions, Art and Australia. Darlinghurst, N.S.W: Pandora Press.

Beck, D. 2005. Hope in Hell: A History of Darlinghurst Gaol and the National Art School: Allen & Unwin.

Bergson, H., K. Ansell-Pearson, and M. Kolkman. 2019. Mind-Energy: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Bramwell, A. 1985. Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler's "Green Party": Kensal Press.

Edwards, D., V. Spate, R. Hoff, and Art Gallery of New South Wales. 1999. This Vital Flesh: The Sculpture of Raynor Hoff and His School: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Finn, Lawrence. 2017. "Leonora Gregory - a Biography ". Actus Reus Press. http://www.lawrencefinn.com/lfdc/index.php/articles/15-art-biography.

France, Christine. 1986. 'Merioola and After.' In Exhibition Catalogue, edited by S.H Ervin Gallery,  Sydney NSW: The National Trust of Australia. Original edition, 1st Edition.

Gallery, Deutsher. 1978. 'Christian Waller.'  Armadale Victoria: Deutsher Galleries.

Hughes, R. 1966. The Art of Australia: A Critical Survey: Penguin Books.

Hughes, Robert. 1991. The Shock of the New : Art and the Century of Change / Robert Hughes. Updated and enlarged ed.. ed. London: London : Thames & Hudson.

Larkin, Mary. 1999. "Vitalism and the Flesh." The Lancet 354 (9194): 2008. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(05)76789-1.

O'Neill, H. 2011. Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives: Hardie Grant Books.

Smith, Bernard. 1959. "The Antipodean Manifesto."

 

[1] As a recent immigrant he was applauded and lauded, cultural cringe at its’ finest.

[2] The joke about how to become a famous Australian artist by dying or leaving the country comes to mind.

[3] Merioola (1941-1951) provides a zeitgeist of interwar Australian artists and their pursuits, providing a macrocosm of artistic influences, objectives and social respectability and desires; despite coming to fruition after the interwar period of 1919-1938.