Between the Devil 'N the Deep Blue Sea

10/02/2021 - 03/03/2021

Bern Emmerichs
Beyond Gravesend 1878


painted ceramic (fired) and mixed media

30.00 x 90.00 cm

Between the Devil 'N the Deep Blue Sea

Bern Emmerichs is an industrious creator of artworks on Australian historical themes. For some years she’s represented cross-cultural contact as well as white-centred episodes and enterprises from the early years post-invasion. Works in Between the Devil N The Deep Blue Sea extend her engagement with frontier history.

Emmerichs is unique as a painter of stories in words and pictures, in the medium of ceramic, whose works are in the collections of major Australian museums as well as art galleries.

For decades, she’s roved Melbourne’s old streets, urban bush, parks and waterways. She’s intrigued by historic documents, charmed by unusual names (like Rosina and Ethel Christina in Golden Boy Alias Olsen 2020) and beguiled by odd details. She’s collected thousands of small domestic items, crockery and figurines, embroideries, tokens, fabrics, trims and curios – akin to the swarm of ‘Frozen Charlottes’ in Remnants Relics n Remains 2020. Her research, her artefacts and her droll personality inform works that the National Maritime Museum describes as ‘appealing contemporary imaginings of events that are not widely documented in historic imagery’.

Eva’s Answered Prayers 2020 is characteristic of Emmerichs’s practice: kindly and wry. She conjures up both the human sadness and the bizarre fallout of the mid-1878 wreck of the Loch Ard in a pastiche of aspects of the story that lodged in her imagination. The picture faithfully represents the bay into which a genteel English teenager, Eva Carmichael, was dragged by a seaman through a roiling slit in the cliffs. As a mother Emmerichs responds to Eva’s stunning bereavement; as a collector, to the wealth of household goods on the vessel; as a woman of Catholic heritage, to the prayers recited in agony. What appears to be a drowned peacock amidst cutlery flung over the strand refers to the Minton ceramic peacock, now the jewel of Warrnambool, which was actually packed in a chest and never washed ashore. The elongated monstrance-like crosses represent the graves of Eva’s sister and mother, in reality quite different and installed some time after Eva’s rescue. There are words from the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, but those along the stratigraphy of the cliffs are from an anonymous modern verse popular with Christians on the Internet.

The artist takes further gentle liberties with Melbourne’s First Medico 2020. The plague-doctor’s beak, throughout history possibly donned by more steampunk cosplayers than doctors, evokes our own COVID days. Astride the proto-city in his rat-printed smock worn over a sprigged Regency-style underskirt, teamed with Jane Austen-style kid boots and teeny clawed gloves, the factual Dr Barry Cotter becomes an ungendered hero for our own times.

Emmerichs’s sympathetic feminist approach to historical inequities and her enthusiasm for bric-à-brac combine with her exceptional technical skills in The Intrepid and Brave Hearted Kaurna Woman 2020. Its decorative motifs are drawn from scrimshanders’ art: scrollwork, cameo portraits, lacy border patterns, capitalized lettering. The bitter story of its human and animal figures is contained within the outline of tusk or tooth, by-products of slaughter. Kaurna Woman is effectively a protest picture, painted on ceramic, of a piece of scrimshaw that never existed.

Vintage bedroom wallpaper of feminine character is evoked in Hidden History 2018-2020, dense with European flowers, dotted with hand-cut decals from Rococo paintings of white people dallying, riding to hounds and gallivanting in carriages. It’s the European bucolic dream — overwritten with the colonial nightmare. In Gippsland’s verdant pockets, as elsewhere, mass and serial killings took place of which generations of twentieth century Australian-born white people have been glad enough, until recently, to remain unaware. The work reminds us that those who knew the most said the least. We know those who continue to suffer have not been listened to.

Between the Devil N The Deep Blue Sea extends the complex body of work of a Celtic Australian contemporary artist who’s made a sustained and vivacious contribution to discourse about our country’s problematic past. Bewitchingly it embodies the artist’s own words: we learn and we relearn.

Dr Sarah Engledow, 2021




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