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Hirschfeld-Mack, Ludwig (1893–1965)

by Tim Fisher

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893-1965), artist and teacher, was born on 11 July 1893 at Frankfurt am Main, Germany, son of Ernst Hirschfeld, a manufacturer of leather goods, and his wife Clara, née Mack, both members of the Evangelical Reformed Church. Young Ludwig was encouraged to express his inquisitive nature through art. After attending the Muster gymnasium at Frankfurt am Main, he studied painting and crafts at the Debschitz Schule, Munich, and attended lectures in art history at the University of Munich. Conscripted into the German Army at the outbreak of World War I, he was promoted lieutenant and won the Iron Cross. In 1917 he married Elenor Wirth who brought him into contact with the Society of Friends.

On being discharged at the end of the war, Hirschfeld attended the Stuttgart Academy where he was introduced to colour theory and printmaking. In 1919 he enrolled at the Weimar Bauhaus, studied under Johannes Itten, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, and was apprenticed to Lyonel Feininger in the print workshop. He qualified as a journeyman in 1922. Early in his career he had adopted his mother's maiden name when signing his works. Hirschfeld-Mack's major preoccupation was with the application of colour theories. It resulted in his colour-light plays, his best-known achievements at the Weimar Bauhaus. Hoping to capture the 'actual' movement implied in the illusionary tensions of abstract art, he built and operated an apparatus that combined moving projections of coloured light, mechanical templates and music of his own composition. He published an explanatory booklet, Farben Licht-Spiele, Wiesen-Ziele-Kritiken (Weimar, 1923), and gave performances in Berlin and Vienna, and at Weimar and Leipzig.

When the Bauhaus was relocated at Dessau in 1925, Hirschfeld-Mack remained at Weimar and taught in schools and teachers' colleges before moving to Berlin in 1934. The rise of the Nazis forced him to leave Germany because of his part-Jewish heritage. In Britain from March 1936, he worked for subsistence societies in Wales, taught in a preparatory school and developed large-scale, projected-light advertising projects. He lent a number of his works to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for its Bauhaus retrospective of 1938.

In 1940 Hirschfeld-Mack was deported to Australia as an enemy alien in the Dunera. He was interned at Hay and Orange, New South Wales, and at Tatura, Victoria. There he made a number of woodcuts that illustrated life under detention. Released in 1942 through the sponsorship of (Sir) James Darling, headmaster of Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Hirschfeld-Mack was appointed its art master. He promoted his pupils' self-knowledge, introduced them to avant-garde painting techniques, and encouraged wood-carving, weaving, musical instrument-making, leatherwork and other crafts. Through a colour-coding of strings and keys of guitars and xylophones, he extended the experience of music for many boys. Under his leadership the art school provided scenery, lighting and displays for plays and exhibitions, pottery for charity stalls, sheepskin coats for victims of the war in Europe, and gates and gardens for the school. In 1954 he organized an exhibition of the work of his pupils. His own work had been exhibited at the University of Melbourne in 1946 and at the Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne, in 1953.

Held in high esteem by both students and staff, 'Dr Hirschfeld', as he was known at Geelong, was an inspirational teacher who consistently propounded the Bauhaus principles of self-knowledge, economy of material and form, and reform of society through art. One pupil Daniel Thomas saw him as a 'serene, quiet man—so fair that he glowed with the pale radiance of saints in stained-glass windows'. Darling said of Hirschfeld-Mack: 'He inspired dozens of boys with his integrity, and enthusiasm. He was an almost perfect man . . . a beautiful character and an original teacher'.

Hirschfeld-Mack's wife had remained in Germany where she died on 11 November 1953. At Glenhuntly, Melbourne, on 4 January 1955 he married with Methodist forms Olive Harrison Russell, a fellow teacher; they retired to Ferny Creek in the Dandenong Ranges in 1957. He continued with his art and taught at various institutions, among them the university and the Kew Kindergarten College. In 1963 he published The Bauhaus: An Introductory Survey. Next year he visited Europe and was invited by the Bauhaus-Archiv, Darmstadt, Germany, to reconstruct his colour-light apparatus and demonstrate his colour-light plays, one of which was filmed for the archive. Survived by his wife, and by two of the three daughters of his first marriage, he died on 7 January 1965 at Allambie Heights, Sydney, and was cremated with the forms of the Society of Friends.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Draffin, Two Masters of the Weimar Bauhaus, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1974)
  • N. Underhill, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, exhibition catalogue (Brisb, 1977)
  • C. Pearl, The Dunera Scandal (Syd, 1983)
  • W. Bate, Light Blue Down Under (Melb, 1990)
  • G. Eisen, The Dunera Experience, exhibition catalogue, Jewish Museum of Australia (Melb, 1990)
  • Form (Cambridge, England), 2, Sept 1966, p 10
  • Art and Australia, 30, no 4, 1993, p 518
  • P. Stasny, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Künstler, Kunsttheoretiker und Kunstpädagoge im Gefolge des Weimarer Bauhaus (Ph.D. thesis, University of Vienna, 1991).

Citation details

Tim Fisher, 'Hirschfeld-Mack, Ludwig (1893–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hirschfeld-mack-ludwig-10510/text18651, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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