Rah Fizelle

R a h   F i z e l l e

AWI President 1948-1951

Rah Fizelle (1891-1964), Self-Portrait c. 1935, red crayon, Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Since the Australian Watercolour Institute was founded in 1923 with B.E. Minns as President, the main purpose of the Institute has been to foster an enlightened interest in this medium, and to bring before the public a representative selection of works by leading exponents. – Rah Fizelle, Foreword, AWI exhibition catalogue, 1950

Rah Fizelle was, together with Grace Crowley, Frank Hinder, Margel Hinder, Ralph Balson and Eleonore Lange, a seminal figure in the second phase of the modernist movement in Australia during the 1930s. His presidency of the AWI was marked by the same engagement, acumen and élan as that of his predecessor, John Eldershaw (Fizelle’s former fellow alumnus at Wagga Wagga High School), which had an energising effect on the Institute.

Standing 176 centimetres in height, with a taut physique, dark eyes, brown hair, a prominent aquiline nose and an angular facial structure, he habitually wore a hat and puffed incessantly on a pipe. His close friend and modernist confrère, Frank Hinder, characterised him as an enthusiastic, energetic man who was categorical about his likes and dislikes, adding that, although Fizelle’s avuncular manner endeared him to children, he could be somewhat sardonic with adults.1

Familiarly known as Rah, or ‘Fiz’ to his friends, Reginald Cecil Grahame Fizelle was born on 4 September 1891 at Baw Baw, near Goulburn, New South Wales, third son of Hubert George Fizelle (1859-1943), a Victorian-born schoolteacher, and Agnes Elizabeth, née Marsden (1867-1951). Their eldest son, George (1889 -1890) had died in infancy in Jerilderie, New South Wales.2 On his paternal side, Rah Fizelle was of Hibernian ancestry, his grandfather, George Jacob Fizelle (1826-1906), having sailed to Australia from his native Ireland on the ship Peru in 1852, settling in White Hills, Bendigo, Victoria, where he was prominent in the local 19th century Christian evangelical movement as a Wesleyan Methodist preacher. Two years later, in March 1854, George Fizelle married Lancashire-born Elizabeth Speed (1837-1907), who had emigrated to Australia with her family in 1841.3 Their eldest surviving son, Hubert George, was the second of eleven children born to them.

Like his siblings, Ella Marsden, Herbert Vere, Geoffrey and Gwendoline, Fizelle followed his father into the pedagogical profession, having been appointed to the Department of Public Instruction in 1915, prior to proverbially taking the King’s shilling subsequent to the outbreak of the Great War. On 10 January 1916, age 24, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, valiantly serving with the 22nd Battalion in France, and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant on 31 October 1917. Three times he was wounded in action — a gunshot to his left shoulder on 26 August 1916, gunshot wounds to his right hip and shoulder on 27 March 1918 and a gunshot wound to his left elbow on 3 October 1918, the latter resulting in a permanent disability. Suffering the residual effects of mustard gas, Fizelle was demobilised at Sydney on 20 September 1919.4 It has been speculated that he may have also have developed post-traumatic stress disorder. While he, together with his two siblings, Geoffrey and Herbert Vere, survived as combatants in the First World War, their youngest brother, Kenneth, had ironically and tragically succumbed to an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1917, aged only fourteen, in Batlow, New South Wales.5 

Further pursuing training post-war at Sydney Teacher’s College, Fizelle studied art under Welsh-born, British-educated May Marsden (later a member of the Australian Watercolour Institute) and was awarded a scholarship to Julian Ashton’s Art School in 1921, attending evening classes there while practicing as a teacher at Darlington Public School from 1922-1926. For some time, he also painted under the tutelage of Will Ashton, principally producing studies of urban Sydney, the harbour and parts of the coast.

From 1923 to 1926, Fizelle exhibited at the Attic Gallery, Sydney, in the Third Annual Exhibition of Colour Notes and Sketches, at the Fine Art Society, Melbourne, and also participated in the Society of Artists’ annual exhibitions. Concurrently, he was represented in the Australian Watercolour Institute’s inaugural exhibition at Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Gallery, in March 1924, with a panel of seven Australian landscape paintings, one of which, Fairfield, was lent by Will Ashton. Elected a Committee Member that year, Fizelle consistently participated in the Institute’s annual exhibitions until 1962, his watercolours invariably garnering approbatory reviews in the press.

Fizelle left Australia in 1927, studying in London at the Polytechnic School of Art and the Westminster School of Art under Ukrainian-born Bernard Meninsky and Frank Medworth, who would be influential following his emigration to Australia in 1938 as head of the art department at East Sydney Technical College, now the National Art School, and subsequently as acting director of the then National Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1944 to 1945. Medworth exhibited with the Australian Watercolour Institute from 1939 and was elected a member in 1944, participating in annual exhibitions until 1947, when he committed suicide, in November that year, by slashing his wrists in the Reforma Hotel in Mexico City. Medworth’s wife, Muriel, née Anderson, likewise exhibited with the AWI from 1940 and was elected a member in 1948.

During his sojourn overseas, Fizelle travelled extensively to Spain, Majorca, France, Austria and Italy, visiting churches, palaces and Etruscan tombs, engendering his interest in archaeology, and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, Paris. He returned to Australia on the vessel R.M.S. Baradine, which berthed in Fremantle, Western Australia, in December 1930.6 The three years spent abroad yielded an abundant resource of visual material and, in 1931, Fizelle mounted two successive one-man exhibitions of his watercolours at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, and at the Fine Art Society Gallery, Melbourne. Stylistically, Fizelle’s paintings were informed by his affinity for objective realism in British art, as well as his visual experience in Italy of the Archimedean compositional geometry of Piero della Francesca and Giotto’s convergent perspective and theatrical mise en scène – influences which ostensibly escaped some critics untroubled by introspection or concerned with art history.

Harold Herbert (himself a watercolourist and Fizelle’s AWI colleague) remarked in The Australasian that while the most interesting works in the Melbourne exhibition were those painted, some in a modern manner, during the artist’s travels overseas, which were pervaded by a Continental atmosphere, ‘Mr. Fizelle has not altered his style or outlook very much during his three or four years abroad, and changes of manner in certain instances are possibly due more to the nature of the subject than anything else.’7

In his review of the Sydney exhibition at Macquarie Galleries, opened by Julian Ashton, the art critic of the Sydney Morning Herald commented:

As a watercolourist, Mr. Rah Fizelle possesses a highly distinctive personality that is revealed in all the work shown in his exhibition…His technique in laying in a wash of colour – the foundation of success in this delicate art – is quite brilliant at times. His draughtsmanship is thoroughly conscientious…but his landscapes are purely decorative and formal. He sees nature with the eyes of an Italian painter of the fourteenth century who was not troubled by ‘values.’ This work is highly original and also serious. It is interesting from the unusual outlook of the artist and for the skill with which he contrives to produce a picture of merit from the least promising materials.8  

Shortly after returning to Sydney from Europe, Fizelle had renewed his friendship with Grace Crowley, a former fellow student at Julian Ashton’s Art School, at the 1930 Archibald Prize exhibition in which Crowley’s stylised, geometrically ordered, modernist portrait of her cousin, Miss Gwen Ridley, was a finalist. Crowley was a close associate of Dorrit Black, both having studied in Paris with French cubists André Lhote and Albert Gleizes, assimilating the complex mathematical and geometric principles of dynamic symmetry and the Golden Section. Fizelle began frequenting The Modern Art Centre in Margaret Street, Sydney, the first exclusively modernist art gallery in Australia, which Dorrit Black had founded in 1931 and where Grace Crowley taught life drawing. Among the major proponents of modernism who exhibited there were Fizelle, Crowley, Roland Wakelin, Grace Cossington Smith and Ralph Balson.

In late 1932, Fizelle and Crowley established their own independent school at 215a George Street, Sydney, where Fizelle had lodgings at the rear of the premises. The Crowley-Fizelle Art School was the most avant-garde teaching institution of the era (and their sketch club a focus for modernism), where they disseminated the compositional principles of dynamic symmetry and the Golden Mean, the Divine Proportion of Renaissance art, represented by the Greek letter Phi with a value equal to 1.618, aesthetically deemed the ideal ratio for length to width of rectangles. As Crowley later recalled, ‘We were united in one belief, the constructive approach to painting, and this insistence on abstract elements in building a design was the keynote of teaching with both Lhote and Gleizes.’9 Fizelle’s knowledge of dynamic symmetry and the Golden Section was gleaned directly from Crowley, as well as from Jay Hambidge’s book, Dynamic Symmetry: The Greek Vase, and Irma Richter’s Rhythmic Form in Art, brought to the school by Frank Hinder, who had joined the George Street group, with his American wife, sculptor Margel Hinder, née Harris, after his return to Australia from the United States in 1934. Hambidge’s methodology was instrumental in Frank Hinder’s work, specifically his 1914 description of cubism as ‘the attempt to dissolve facts entirely in design.’10 However, Crowley later contended, ‘Fizelle said that he did not understand cubism,’ being principally interested in dynamic symmetry, which he was responsible for teaching at the school.11

A number of factors, financial, philosophical and personal, led to the closure of the Crowley-Fizelle school in late 1937 and, ultimately, the rupture of Fizelle’s relationship with Crowley, who relocated to a studio at 227 George Street while Fizelle retained the premises at 215a George Street.

A prodigiously gifted and visionary educator, Fizelle had introduced as early as 1925 a progressive method for teaching art based on creative expression rather than pure representation, often playing music, such as Stravinsky’s Firebird, as a source of inspiration. Having reprised his teaching activities at Balgowlah Public School, he mounted an exhibition of children’s art by his pupils, in 1938, at Grosvenor Galleries, Sydney. Praising Fizelle’s revolutionary approach to art education, one commentator opined that the ‘exhilarating results’ evidenced in that exhibition ‘may well be a tiny seed from which a truly representative Australian art, unfettered by slavish devotion to the past, may grow.’12 The following year, Fizelle, Will Ashton, then director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Frank Medworth were on the selection committee for an international exhibition of children’s art at the Department of Education Gallery, Bridge Street, Sydney. He later taught at Redfern Public school before being appointed to the staff of Sydney Teachers’ College as an art lecturer in 1947, where he remained for a decade.

Eleanore Lange, German-born sculptor, art historian, critic and indefatigable public lecturer on modern art during the 1930s, who had been closely allied with the Crowley-Fizelle School, was the motivating force behind the modernist manifesto Exhibition I of semi-abstract paintings and sculptures at the David Jones Art Gallery in August 1939, opened by Mr. Justice Evatt. The eight participating artists were Fizelle, Crowley, Frank Hinder, Ralph Balson, Eleanore Lange, Margel Hinder, Gerald Lewers and Lyndon Dadswell, Lange having authored the foreword to the catalogue. Regarding their shared modernist lingua franca, the Sydney Morning Herald critic observed that, ‘The painters have one thing in common – the intrepid way in which they disintegrate the forms of nature and put the fragments together again to make new patterns.’ However, he took a more critical view of Fizelle’s four works in that exhibition, Theme, Nude, Emily and Movement, remarking, ‘A few of Rah Fizelle’s nudes have an appealing simplicity and sense of modelling. Elsewhere, Mr Fizelle’s effects seem coldly cerebral.’13 Emily, Fizelle’s masterful portrait, immensely evocative in its simplification of forms, was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1966 from the artist’s estate as a gift of his widow.

Although significant within the context of Australian art history, Exhibition I wasn’t the succès de scandale that was anticipated, having been eclipsed by the arrival in Australia of the groundbreaking, large-scale, touring Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, under the patronage of newspaper publisher, Keith Murdoch, and curated by art critic of the Melbourne Herald and co-founder of Macquarie Galleries, Basil Burdett. Widely publicised and immensely popular, it was opened by B.J. Waterhouse, President of the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, at David Jones Art Gallery in Sydney on 20 November, attracting 15,000 visitors. Attitudinally, that exhibition had the effect of a Newtonian apple falling on the head of Australian culture.

That same year, at the Teachers’ Federation Building, 166 Phillip Street, Sydney, the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) of New South Wales was formed and Rah Fizelle elected its first president. For some years, until the mid-1940s, he would exhibit with both the Victorian and New South Wales CAS. At the same time, he was a member of the Teachers’ Federation Art Society in which he was active in organising art lectures and discussions.

On 28 November 1942 at the North Sydney registry office Fizelle married Edith Agnes Watson, née Collins, an artist and former student known as Michael Collins. The couple lived for several years at 215a George St, Sydney, before relocating to 30 Bynya Road, Palm Beach, and later Greta Road, Kulnura, in the Central Coast region of New South Wales.

During the 1930s and 1940s, a central motif in Fizelle’s painting was the human figure, principally the nude female form, reductively rendered and geometrically ordered, the geometric planes of his figure compositions having later progressed to include more abstracted three-dimensional works in wood, sandstone and porcelain.

Throughout his artistic career, watercolour was a major component of Fizelle’s oeuvre, his carefully constructed landscapes being painted en plein air. While a skilled technician, he often worked with a limited palette, having a predilection for ochre and Indian red. Fizelle’s one-man exhibition of watercolours at the Canberra Gallery, Brisbane, in 1945 led one critic to extol the ‘careful draughtsmanship, delicate appreciation of colour and rhythmic composition of his watercolours,’ with the further observance that, ‘Two pictures, Reclining Nude and Pea Pickers, reveal the influence of the old-time cubism, but there is a sensitiveness and a sense of finality about his drawing that lend character to his landscapes…Every one is a fine piece of workmanship.’14

Although the seat of the AWI has historically been in Sydney, as president, Fizelle was committed with an almost missionary zeal to expanding the activities of the Institute nationally and, particularly, making watercolour exhibitions accessible to regional areas. Hence, from 1946 to 1952, twelve AWI exhibitions were held interstate, including Perth, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle, Cessnock, Muswellbrook, Wollongong and Goulburn. Under his presidency, the 28th AWI annual exhibition, opened at the Education Department Galleries by the Begum Karoon, wife of the High Commissioner for Pakistan, in May 1951, attracted notice in the press for the numerous women artists represented – more than thirty. His revitalising influence brought in new, more adventurous members such as Frank and Muriel Medwoth, Hal Missingham, Frank Hinder, Weaver Hawkins, Eric Thake, Jean Isherwood, Robert Campbell (Director of the Queensland Art Gallery), Frank McNamara, Douglas Annand, Eileen Berndt and George Duncan.

Regrettably, however, Fizelle’s active advocacy of modernism, dedication to his students and commitment to the advancement of organisations of which he was a member, most notably the AWI, had the deleterious effect of curtailing his own artistic production. As eminent curator, Daniel Thomas, judiciously noted, ‘Enthusiastic, wide-ranging and cultivated in his artistic sympathies, Rah Fizelle ultimately gave less energy to his own art than to his fellow artists and their causes, to his students, to children and the under-privileged. Modern art was perhaps one of many good causes to be supported by a man who best loved art history and natural beauty.’15

Rah Fizelle passed away on 25 October 1964 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, survived by his wife, Edith, and was cremated without religious rites.

In 1965, a memorial panel comprising three of Fizelle’s watercolours lent by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Rocks at Kurnell (1926), Snow in Umbria (1930) and Receding Light (1959), was exhibited in the Australian Watercolour Institute’s annual exhibition.

His work is held in all State galleries and most regional galleries, as well as in institutional and private collections throughout Australia.

ENDNOTES

  1. Frank Hinder interviewed about Rah Fizelle by Hazel de Berg, Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 157, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
  2. Australia Death Index, 1787-1985, Registration Number 6465.
  3. New South Wales, Australia, Assisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, 1828-1896
  4. First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, Series B2455, Fizelle, RCG, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
  5. New South Wales Registers of Coroners’ Inquests, 1831-1937.
  6. Fremantle, Western Australia, Passenger Lists, 1897-1963.
  7. Herbert, Harold, The Australasian, 19 September 1931, p. 14.
  8. Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1931, p. 6.
  9. Dutton, Geoffrey, The Innovators, Macmillan, Australia, 1986, p. 32.
  10. Hambidge, Jay, ‘The Ancestry of Cubism,’ Century Magazine, 1914, p. 8.
  11. Dutton, Geoffrey, The Innovators, Macmillan, Australia, 1986, p. 61.
  12. Sydney Morning Herald, ‘No Rose Coloured Glasses,’ 22 February, 1938, p. 17.
  13. Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 1939, p. 4.
  14. The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 25 July 1945, p. 4.
  15. Thomas, Daniel, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 8, Melbourne University Press, 1981.

Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen

Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2015)