Australian Art


Ola Cohn
Ola Cohn

AKA: Ola Cohn

Born: 1892 Bendigo

Died: 1964
  • Sculptor

Ola was one of five living children born to Julius Cohn and Sarah Helen Snowball. In 1849 Joshua and Sarah Isabella Snowball emigrated to Australia from England. Joshua prospered, establishing businesses and developing property. He also formed a musical society, became a municipal councillor and served one term in the Victorian Parliament. The home became a social centre. The children encouraged in the areas of arts and music. However when daughter Sarah Helen aged twenty seven, was refused permission to many Julius Cohn, the pair eloped and were married at the Melbourne Registry Office on June 7th, 1887.

In 1853 the Cohn brothers, Moritz, Julius Isaac and Jacob of an orthodox Jewish family, left Denmark to "seek their fortunes on the Victorian goldfields". The brothers arrived too late to dig for gold, but not before being frightened on the road by fellow-traveller William Charles Vahland who they mistook for a bushranger. Vahland an architect later designed many important buildings in Bendigo and became their lifelong friend.

The enterprising Cohns eventually made their own fortunes in the cordial manufacturing and brewing industries. In 1861 Moritz travelled to Europe, married his cousin Roeshen Ballin in Hamburg and returned to establish a brewery at Talbot. By 1862 he was elected to Elmshurst Council. 1863 saw Moritz serve as Mayor, his influence may still be seen in the European-style town hall. Julius Cohn was born the eldest son in the family of nine daughters and two sons. Widowed at thirty-four years of age, Roeshen became director of the brewery and sent Julius to Germany to be educated to take his place in the brewing world. This he did, as he is credited with brewing the first lager for the Australian market.

Following the headstrong start to their marriage, Sarah and Julius Cohn settled down in Bendigo to an active community life and the raising of a family. Six children were born, Moya (d. 9 months), Marc, Lorna, Ola, Franziska and Leo. Sarah was an energetic and creative woman who delighted in original entertainments, produced plays and musicals, designing costumes and other hand-painting the invitations. Throughout her life she remained an active craftswoman, working in tapestry and embroidery.

In summer she would move her children to a furnished house or guest house at the beach to escape the Bendigo heat. Ola made her first 'sculpture' from moist sand during such a holiday when she was a mere seven years of age. Ola Cohn is perhaps Australia's best known female sculptor. To many generations of Melbourne's children, she is certainly best-loved and remembered for her Fairy Tree in the Fitzroy gardens. Her many commissions, brought to public awareness contemporary development on art. She worked tirelessly for many charities, for the causes of art and for the encouragement of women artists in particular. Her ability to see herself clearly as an artist and to work with dedication is a story as inspiring as it is engaging.

A governess was responsible for the youngsters primary schooling, the girls later attending Girton College. On Saturday mornings Lorna and Ola attended drawing lessons at the Bendigo School of Mines. When Ola was sixteen she was withdrawn from school after developing a 'shadow on the lung'.

When her health improved, Ola was enrolled as a sculpture student at the School of Mines under A.T. Woodward, an important, internationally trained teacher whose influence was felt far beyond Bendigo. From 1912 until 1919 Ola was trained in the traditional manner: copying from plaster models of claimed sculptures, copying plant forms, heads and the human figure from life. Her first exhibition was held in 1919 in the ballroom of her parents home. Late the same year Julius Cohn died, and the family moved for a time to Sandringham. Soon Ola enrolled at Swinburne Technical College, under the sculptor J.R. Tranthin Fryer. Students here were encouraged to model from life or memory. Fryer encouraged Ola to exhibit and to become a member of the Victoria Artists Society. Her work began to receive critical attention and she received her first private commission - to model a portrait of a four-year-old boy. The family returned to Bendigo but Ola stayed behind to continue her studies. Although her board was paid by Sarah, Ola had to fund her other expenses - a difficult task until a kindly aunt arranged for her work to be shown to the manager of W.H. Roche and Co. Ola then maintained herself via Roches with a steady stream of hand-carved wooden bellows and wood-boxes! During this time Ola also became a member of the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors.

By 1925 Ola had created enough work to co-exhibit in Queens Hall, Melbourne.
Already Ola had established a modest reputation as an artist.

Despite, or because of this, Ola felt a need to further her artistic education. Her mother and elder brother agreed to send Ola and Franziska overseas to study in their respective disciplines. In 1926 the girls set sail for London aboard the 'Maloja'. A fellow passenger was Jack Lindsary, son of Norman. On their arrival in London, Ola and Franziska were met by their cousin Ruth Howell and artist Madge Freeman. Quickly settled, the Cohn sisters soon presented their letters of introduction to the Australian Agent General and the London Director of Education. An entrance test to the Royal College of Art was set for Ola and she was accepted as a student in the last term of 1926.

The sculpture masters at the Royal College were modernists Professor Ernest Cole and his assistant, Henry Moore. For the first time given the task of carving in stone, Ola was instructed to make a shape "strong and robust". Ola has written of the important influence on her work of Henry Moore. "Henry Moore was the assistant Sculpture Professor. His outlook and understanding of the deep meaning of Sculpture was so inspiring, that it made me think and work on totally new lines. Previously I have thought of sculpture as images carved in stone, wood, or cast in bronze, to represent the human figure as closely as possible. No my years of academic training were shattered. I must start again from the beginning. Imagine how I felt, I could not longer turn to Greek Sculpture for inspiration, for Professor Cole and Henry Moore had sent all the plaster casts from the college. They did not want we students to be influenced by periods that had passed. They wanted us to portray our own time in our own way, so that we would leave a record behind of our day, not an artificial time. The idea was very good, but most disconcerting. I had always been helped on the way in Australia by being told to look for references in cooks. This I did and cribbed other sculptors ideas. Now this avenue was closed. I was left in an empty room at the Royal College, given a piece of stone and told to carve a shape. My reaction was bewilderment, I had to think and be original".

Ola worked diligently. She studied at the Royal College from 9.30 am until 6 pm weekdays. This included six hours per week of life drawing. Two evenings per week she studied Bronze Casting at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and as well studied wood carving in South Kensington. Instruction at the College included a study of architecture, often on sites around London, and attendance at contemporary sculpture exhibitions.

The uncertainty of her length of stay in England created an urgency to make the best use of every moment. As well as formal tuition, Ola and Franziska undertook journeys to the Continent to study art and architecture first- hand during the term holidays. Ola also exhibited in Paris, London and Glasgow. Toward the end of her time in London, friends led her to the carved Elfin Oak, which started a passion in her to provide for just such a gift for Australian children. One year had turned into three, and in 1929 she was awarded her Diploma and the privilege of signing A.R.C.A. after her name.

The winning of a scholarship allowed her another year but by October 1930 it was time to return to Australia.
Ola brought with her almost two tons of sculpture. Despite the fact that it was her own work, she was made to pay import duty on the sculpture.
Ola set up a studio in the dilapidated basement of 9 Collins Street, Melbourne. Once repaired by a carpenter friend of her mothers, the address provided excellent studio space even though the living quarters were dark and cramped. The small space were Ola ate her meals at night became a writing desk on which she created her Fairies Tree books. Ola and her sister unpacked the London sculptures and announced an exhibition opening on 17th March 1931. Her old master from Bendigo was asked to open this, the first modernist sculpture exhibition to be held in Melbourne. A.T. Woodward is reported to have talked so long in his praises of Ola that the crowd had considerably thinned by the end of his rambling speech! and as well, Ola had inadvertently chosen an opening date which co-incided with a major Streeton exhibition at the Fine Art Gallery.
ewspapers had, and have the power to sway public opinion with a critical review of an artists work and much to Ola's disquiet, The "Herald" sent Blamire Young to view her sculpture several days before the pieces were properly arranged. She was relieved to read the review headlined: "Art Past and Future. Streeton and Ola Cohn; The staid, established, traditional artist with a brilliant reputation raising a barrier against the new doctrines ... The new ideas, in the carvings of Ola Cohn, call for sympathy and understanding from the present generation."
Not so kind was the critic of the "Bulletin", and although the writer in The "Leader" acknowledged the stimulation of Cohn's modern works, he caused Ola to bristle when he described her head studies 'Comedy' and 'Head of a Virgin' as female when she had conceived them as sexless. 'Head of a Virgin' was purchased fourteen years later, 'Comedy' was purchased by the Queensland University more than twenty years later - indicating how far in advance of her times she was.
The idea ignited in London of a carved fairies tree, now began to gather strength. Ola consulted Mr. H.C. Wright, a known tree lover, with her plan. He immediately took her to an ancient red-gum stump, long dead, full of lumps and knots. Dr. Kent Hughes, President of the Melbourne City Council Parks and Gardens Committee offered her another tree, but as the second showed the marks of the long-past removal of a bark canoe, Ola felt it would be irreverent to carve from that which may have been sacred to black people. Ola began to carve the tree from a vision of love and peace. The three years which the task took to complete must have sorely tested her own serenity! Working outdoors in both good and bad weather, subject to the curiosity and jibes of every passer-by, plagued by mosquitoes, and flies and even bee-stings, and to cap it off totally unsupported by the City Council. Ola continued to work valiantly until her gift was complete. Her first group of figures was the mother and baby koala, next the snake, Stoutheart riding on a frog, imps, lizards, spiders - one hundred and seventy carbed figures in all! Ola wrote to the Melbourne City Council to thank them for the privilege of carving the tree. For her work she received in return no recognition, no dedication, no official unveiling or letter of appreciation.
In the evenings Ola began to write her books of Australian fairy tales. Bringing these to publication was also fraught, her first advisors and collaborators being ill-chosen. A new illustrator, Majorie Wood, had to cut a second set of lino-cuts when the publisher lost the originals whilst travelling to the printer. More books followed and Ola gained the experience to handle much of the organising herself. In her books, her carving of the Fairy Tree and much of her work, the ability to recapture childhood’s sense of wonder is recognised as the essence of Ola's gift.
In 1932 Ola and a group of sculptors had established the Sculptor Society of Australia. The group met at Ola's studio and within their first year arranged an exhibition at the Fine Art Gallery. In 1933, whilst consulting on the carving of a blackwood memorial panel for the library at Geelong Grammar School, Ola was offered five months teaching on
a life-in basis which she accepted.
In 1934 Ola was given notice to quit the Collins Street studio.
After much frustration she eventually found suitable premises in East Melbourne. In the midst of her packing and unpacking Ola was asked to model a Centenary Medal from a given design. This medal was a memento to be given to every school child in Victoria. In 1935 Ola was co-opted by Mr. Fred Ward - a designer of modern furniture - to carve a designed crest for the president's chair of the Royal College of Surgeons.
By 1937, Ola decided she needed her own premises. She had undertaken a commission to carve two six foot figures for the new Hobart Hospital and her present studio was far too small. Her first public commission had been undertaken earlier that year when she was asked to prepare a panel for the Curnow Memorial drinking fountain in her home town of Bendigo. Ola purchased a 'former Cobb & Co. coach house' at 41 Gipps Street, East Melbourne. The property included huge stables, a coach house, feed room, harness room, hayloft and workers' accommodation. The building was converted to living quarters upstairs, studios and store-rooms downstairs. Ola's new home soon became a busy centre for artists of particular importance for women artists, and a meeting place for her various professional and charity groups. On Friday evenings a life drawing group was held, all artists contributing to the cost of the model and coffee! The small garden was designed and planted by Franziska. Tragically, Franziska fell ill and died shortly afterward: Ola lost not only a sister but a great supporter and friend.
The Hobart Hospital sculptures were not well received. Far too modern for provincial Tasmania - the sculptures caused questions to be raised in parliament! To his credit, the architect insisted the sculptures stay. They remain an appropriate adornment to a modern building.
In 1939 Ola received a commission to carve sixteen rectangular panels for the M.L.C. building in Sydney. Fourteen designs were provided by Murray Griffin, two more - Goldmining and Coal mining were designed by Ola. In the same year she was granted a commission by the South Australian Women’s Centenary Council which was to take Ola eighteen months to complete. Ola was to design a statue to honour the pioneer women of Australia - a remarkable project conceived, organised, financed and created by women. For the project a three ton block of Waikerie limestone was delivered to Ola's home. Again Ola worked outdoors as the stone was far too large and heavy to be moved into the studio. Ola, 'a short, stout lady' carving the seven foot high stone figure entirely by hand, climbing up and down ladders, sometimes in mop cap, goggles and respirator, must have been a sight to behold as she worked on the serene figure of the Pioneer Women. The sixteen-foot high statue today stands majestically in the centre of Adelaide.
During World War IT Ola several times opened her studio for fetes and fundraising efforts. She also taught clay modelling to servicemen on leave. In 1940 she began teaching Kindergarten Training College students, a position Ola retained for twelve years. The organising of functions came naturally to Ola as she had early learned the art from her mother's numerous and creative entertainments. In 1942 Sarah moved in with her daughter, bringing with her the handsome furniture belonging to Grandfather Snowball. Sarah also created the excitement of a call to the fire brigade when she inadvertently set fire to her room by throwing a cigarette butt in the bin ... Sarah died (of natural causes!) in 1946.
By 1949, Ola was again ready to travel, first serving a period as President of the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors. This time her extensive travels took her as far as Iceland, collecting rocks instead of the usual tourist souvenirs. She returned refreshed in 1951, immediately picking up again her committee work, speaking engagements, writing, radio interviews, materials searching, teaching and sculpture.
In 1952 Ola entered a mountain ash carving for the Crouch Prize for Religious Art previously always won by a painting. Ola was awarded the prize for her piece entitled "Abraham", which was acquired by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. In the following years Ola carved many pieces of religious sculpture including the Mannix Centenary Prize, the font for the Flinders Naval Base and panels in several churches including St. Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne.
Ola continued to work regular hours beginning by 9 am and working through until nearly six, with a short break for lunch. She valued her working tooks, keeping them well maintained and her working space orderly.
The strain of her chosen profession eventually became telling as her small build did not make easier the tasks of moving heavy blocks of wood and stone, bags of plaster and solid work-stands. Ola began to suffer from arthritis and eventually discs in her spine collapsed. Amongst her bedside attendants during her recuperation was Herbert John Green, a man who had first befriended Ola when he took his daily lunch from his city office to the Fitzroy Gardens to watch her carve. His courtship was patient as Ola had long decided to remain single in order to dedicate her life to art. At sixty-five years of age, Ola changed her mind and married John Green, enjoying four years of "the best thing that ever happened" before John died in 1957.
Still Ola worked. Commissions included the C.J. Dennis Memorial Plaque for the courtyard of the Southern Cross Hotel Melbourne and two six foot tall jarrah saints and four angels for St. Paul's, Bendigo. Recognising her advancing years, Ola drew up a will which ensured . that her home and studio would be preserved as an art and education centre by bequeathing the property to the Council of Adult Education. A clause in the will established the right of the Melbourne Society of Women Artists and Sculptors to continue to use the buildings. In 1962 Ola was diagnosed as diabetic but the condition was quickly stabilised. Ola returned to her work.
Christmas was approaching with its usual round of end-year celebrations and obligations. Ola prepared for her annual holiday at Cowes, finishing off a clay bust to be left to dry whilst she was away. Ola was the keeper of a marvellous secret. She had received notification that she was to be awarded an M.B.E. for services to art in the 1965 New Year's Day Honours List. Next day she drove the long car journey through the Australian heat to Phillip Island. Distressed on arrival, she was rushed to hospital where within a few hours, on the 23rd December, 1964, she died.
Ola Cohn made a valuable contribution to Australian art. Her life and dedication to her work provides inspiration, particularly for women artists, the cause of whom she so actively supported. Her art is perhaps best summarised in the following quote written in London, 1930: "I consider (Miss Cohn) has been a student in the Sculpture School of the Royal College of Art for the last five years, during that time she has shown steady, continuous and remarkable improvement.
I consider she has a good sculptural vision. Her work from life and portraiture and figure, shows a strong feeling of character, an appreciative of the tone relation of masses, and a very good constructive sense.
Her compositions and designs have imagination and a fine sense of unity. She is a competent wood-carver and stone-carver understanding and being in sympathy with the material she uses.
She has had experience in most of the branches of sculpture, and she shows competence in whatever she undertakes.
I admire Miss Cohn's character. She is hardworking, sensitive and ambitious, and I feel she will progress further and further and produce works of a very high order.
H.S. Moore
(Instructor School of Sculpture)
Source: Helen Cohn "My Beloved Aunt"


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