Also known as
Alison Baily Rehfisch,
Alison Baily Green
Alison Rehfisch was deeply influenced by theosophy and spiritualism. Her tendency to mysticism found expression in the new Modernist vision to reveal the truths of nature such as rhythm, line, colour and mass thus revealing its dynamism. Cézanne, Braque, El Greco and Chagall provided inspirations for her portraits and still life compositions.
painter, was born in Woollahra, Sydney on 23 January 1900, elder daughter of William Baily Green and Annie Louisa (Lou) Green , a painter, wood-carver, musician and feminist whose Baptist minister father, James Greenwood, had pioneered public education in NSW and was an active worker for women’s emancipation. When Alison was very young the family moved to Mosman on the other side of the harbour and Alison attended SCEGGS Redlands at Cremorne, where her art teacher was Albert Collins . When Alison was five, her younger sister died, a tragedy, she said, that haunted her all her life. Desolate at the loss of her sole companion, she drew strange pictures of God, Heaven, angels and landscapes of the world she imagined her sister inhabiting. She was always influenced by her theosophist mother’s belief in spiritualism. 'Her tendency to mysticism found expression in the new Modernist vision that Dattilo-Rubbo [sic] and his students, according to Roland Wakelin, were upholding – seeking out and expressing the vital truths of nature – the essentials of rhythm and line and colour and mass – to reveal its dynamic and emotional force’ (Power, p.39, footnoting Wakelin on Cézanne, Undergrowth 1925). According to Power (p.39), 'Alison was to be influenced by Wakelin’s use of colour throughout her life’.
Alison’s parents encouraged her interest in the arts, especially her mother, and 'it was decided I should take up drawing seriously and I was sent to Julian Ashton’s Art School’ (Power, not footnoting Hazel de Burgh). She confessed in 1975 that she did not work very hard and left at the age of nineteen to marry Rodney Rehfisch. Once their daughter Margaret Alison (Peg), born in 1920, was at school Alison joined Dattilo Rubbo 's art classes and became passionately dedicated to painting. In 1929 she and other past and present students of Rubbo’s – Dora Jarret , Arthur Murch and Neville Barker – held an exhibition, “Four Young Artists”, at Farmer’s Blaxland Galleries. Alison mainly showed flowers, including Fruits of the Garden , which the Sun Herald reviewer (4 December 1929) compared with Margaret Preston 's work in the focus on design, 'and, without attempting the flat, formal style of Miss Preston, has achieved fine vitality in this sphere. All her work has a pleasant depth and richness of texture, and she weaves her colours together forcefully and with admirable balance.’ She also exhibited A Corner of the Studio , but flower pieces were always her major subject; they received strong reviews, both negative and positive, over the years (see Power 2001, p.7, and book).
At Rubbo’s Alison became lifelong friends with several fellow students in his 'Cours pour Dames’: Janna Bruce, Margaret Coen (who studied under Rubbo for 7 years), Dora Jarret, Isabel McKenzie, Tempe Manning, Elsa Russell. She also met her lover George Bernard Duncan (1904-1974) at Rubbo’s, who finally became her second husband in 1942 and was Director of David Jones Art Gallery in 1953-64. After holding a joint exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in November 1933, Alison and George travelled to England and Europe; they stayed away for five years. Alison studied at the Grosvenor Art School (1933-39) under Iain MacNab. With Elaine Haxton and Gerald Lewers (sculptor husband of the painter Margo Lewers ), she and George had a show at London’s Cooling Galleries in 1934. She visited European art galleries and was greatly impressed by El Greco, Braque and Chagall ('it was from when I first saw his work that fantasy started to creep into my work, it had mostly been still-life subjects up to that day’). She exhibited with the Royal Oil Painters Institute, the Society of Women Artists and the British Empire Society in England and with the Societé des Beaux Arts (New Salon) in Paris. She wrote various articles including 'Australian Artists in London’ for Art and Australia (15 May 1939), which mentioned Barbara Tribe , Janna Bruce and Margaret Holder , among others. She also wrote a satire on the judges of the Archibald Prize – the National Art Gallery of NSW trustees – which was never published (manuscript in Rehfisch exhibition, National Trust SH Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill, The Rocks, Sydney, NSW, 2002).
Rehfisch was a member of the Contemporary Group and the Contemporary Art Society of Australia and had work included in the 1945 Australian Women Painters exhibition at Sydney. She had five solo shows at Macquarie Galleries altogether, and she continued to exhibit jointly with her husband who shared her post-impressionist ideals. Late in life, when living with Duncan in an old wooden house with a large, much-loved garden at Pymble, she said she had become
“extraordinarily interested in an ecological approach… I think one of the best things I’ve ever painted is “Ecological Fragment”, which has something of Australia, the heat and harshness of Australia, behind it; the Aboriginal death symbols, totem poles and so on, balanced with the gay still life of bottle brush and leaves; trying to get that balance in between.
Despite persistent memories of her lonely childhood, Rehfisch was lively and forward-looking in 1975, planning her next paintings and keenly watching her students’ progress. She died later that year, her husband having predeceased her by a few months. The Macquarie Galleries gave them a joint memorial exhibition in 1976.
Alison Rehfisch (1900-1975), (Woman Dressing) n.d. (1936?), oil on canvas; signed l.l. 'Rehfisch’. Collection Elinor and Fred Wrobel, Sydney:
This splendid, rather austere painting of a woman in a petticoat choosing a dress from her wardrobe is reputedly a self portrait-indeed, a double self portrait as she reappears in the wardrobe mirror. Apparently painted when Rehfisch was living in London, it exemplifies the Franco-British style of post-impressionism she adopted as a result of her studies in Paris and at Iain McNab’s Grosvenor School of Art in London and kept for the rest of her life. While living in England and Europe in 1933-39, Rehfisch had been particularly impressed by Braque, 'with his feeling of design, his reality. Reality has always appealed to me; I’ve always hated frills and that sort of thing in life and painting too, I think.’ Of her methods of work, she commented in 1975:
“I work rather quickly, really. Well, sometimes I work for five or six weeks pretty well every day on a canvas, but not for months or years as some artists do. I’m rather impulsive and impetuous, and I like to get on to it. If I don’t get what I want in the first painting or two, it’s lost, I never get it again.
I think colour is the most important thing, colour and design and dimension in a painting. You can’t decry the skeleton of art, it must have drawing, design and colour whatever it is, whatever your outlook is, it must have; that is why the years of study have been very good for me.
... I’m very delighted to see the way [that some of my old students for whom I recently started a class are] simplifying their work, getting away from details and frills and so on and getting down to colour and design, just the way Braque did..”
Rehfisch’s understated commitment to simplified forms and blocks of thinly-applied colour, her detached view in which figure and frocks are of equal value-where a woman in a petticoat is as impersonal a shape as the fruit or flowers in better-known paintings such as Orange and Lemons (c.1935, Art Gallery of NSW)-suggests a rather inhuman formalism. In fact, as this painting shows, her work has an individuality that not only asserts her joy in paint itself but also a fascination with the everyday details of life so intense that her objects are transformed-perhaps not quite, as Rehfisch wished, into something timeless but certainly into exemplary period pieces.