Dora Ohlfsen and the facade commission

12 Oct 2019 – 8 Mar 2020

Realisation showing how Dora Ohlfsen’s Greek chariot race c1918 might have looked on the facade of AGNSW

Discover the 100-year-old story of the Gallery’s unfinished facade: meet the unsung artist originally invited to make a sculpture for above the entrance doors and explore six contemporary creative proposals for the space.

The exterior of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (and the empty space above the door intended for sculpture)
About the exhibition

On the facade, or front, of the Art Gallery of NSW there are several spaces intended for decorative bronze panels that were never realised. Perhaps the most important of those still 'empty’, is the one above the Gallery’s grand entrance doors. In 1913, the Gallery trustees commissioned the expatriate Australian artist Dora Ohlfsen (1869-1948) to sculpt a classical Greek chariot race in low relief for it. Though Ohlfsen worked on the piece for many years and her designs were approved, in 1919 the commission was abruptly cancelled. One hundred years later, this exhibition examines the original commission and some exciting contemporary proposals for the space.

'Portrait of Dora Ohlfsen', c1908, gelatin silver photograph. Photograph by M Shadwell Clerke. Art Gallery of New South Wales Archive. Gift of Dora Stanford 1995.

About Dora Ohlfsen

Dora Ohlfsen led a fascinating life. Born in 1869 in Ballarat, she first left Australia to study music but, when forced to abandon a promising musical career, took up sculpture. After a period working in Russia, Ohlfsen settled in Rome in 1902 where she remained for over 40 years. She soon became a highly regarded medallist with works collected by the French government and the British Museum. In WWI Ohlfsen worked as a nurse and produced the Anzac medallion, one of her finest works, to raise funds for injured soldiers. Between the wars, she was patronised by Italy’s fascist government and for them created her major public piece, a war memorial at Formia. On 7 February 1948, Ohlfsen was found dead in her studio, alongside her companion of over 40 years, Elena von Kügelgen.

Read full biography
New commission, or old?

This exhibition marks 100 years since the facade commission was cancelled. The Gallery is using that anniversary to reconsider the face of the Gallery.
Designed by Walter Vernon, the facade was completed in 1909 and is today included on the State Heritage Register. What might any new addition to this important landmark – one sited on Gadigal land – entail?
Should the Gallery attempt the ethically problematic recreation of the unfinished work of a long-dead sculptor? Or should we look to the future and consider the spirit of the original decorative plan, while working with a contemporary artist?

Dora Ohlfsen with the plaster cast of her 1922 medallion of Mussolini, c1922, copy print of a gelatin silver photograph. Photographer unknown. Art Gallery of New South Wales Archive. Gift of Dora Stanford 1995.

For more about Dora Ohlfsen 'the reluctant fascist’, visit Hidden War, stories from the trenches of the First World War, collected from the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ archive

Discover more
Dora Ohlfsen & today’s artists

Dora Ohlfsen, like a number of women artists, had many once-celebrated works lost to history. In this exhibition, the creative concepts of six women artists are also presented. Invited to reflect on Ohlfsen’s life and work, the artists’ varied responses are speculative, creative and playful. They recognise in Ohlfsen’s story the trials of being an artist, especially a female one, and the uncertainties of the commissioning process. The particulars of Ohlfsen’s life (as a lesbian expatriate whose key late clients were fascists) have proven fascinating to some. Others have focused on the Gallery’s role as a cultural gatekeeper, on individual works within its collection, or on stylistic influences in the building’s decoration.