Anton Bruehl's vintage photography exhibition at the QUT
The Queensland University of Technology’s Gardens Point campus is a good place to watch student life go by. Like any Australian university there are all sorts: reluctant arts brats, buttoned down law students, loudmouth business undergrads. They rush along the campus’ Main Drive this particular rainy afternoon – wet even by Brisbane standards – tapping at their phones whilst skipping for cover.
As they do they pass right by the QUT Art Museum. Heads down to avoid the rain the students don’t catch the massive poster out front, featuring a semi-nude model lying on a thatched towel. It’s actually quite a discreet photo, but undoubtedly alluring. And it says something about Brisbane’s ability to bucket down water on its denizens that nobody stops to take a closer look.
It turns out that this wasn’t a great day to witness the effect the poster usually has. “We are getting a lot of interest from students,” the Art Museum’s Acting Senior Curator Megan Williams tells me a week later, chuckling as she refers to the striking image, originally a 1930s advertisement for Cannon Towels. “I think it’s actually quite cheeky and very Bruehl-esque, in a sense.”
By “Bruehl-esque” Williams means Australian-born photographer Anton Bruehl. And the exhibition the poster spruiks is In the spotlight: Anton Bruehl photographs 1920s-1950s. Don’t panic if you’ve never heard of Bruehl: the lack of attention on that rainy Queensland day was until recently indicative of the wider arts community, which has struggled in recent years to play catch-up with his impressive legacy.
Born in Naracoote, South Australia in 1900, Anton Bruehl grew up there and then rural Victoria, before moving to Melbourne in 1914. The child of German parents, Bruehl family life soured during the war years, inspiring a young Anton to skip Australia for New York in 1919. There, Bruehl worked as an electrical engineer until 1923, when a passion for photography roused him to seek out famous Pictorialist, Clarence H. White.
White believed photography could serve both the art and commercial worlds. Under his early tutelage Bruehl flourished, developing a signature still-life modernist style and starting his own studio in 1926. He would quickly become a pioneer in the commercial field, a series of advertisements for menswear company Weber and Heilbroner gracing the pages of The New Yorker in the late 1920s and sparking an innovative career that would bring him to the attention of magazine publisher Condé Nast, and hence colour photography.
Nast commissioned Bruehl in 1931, along with colleague Fernand Bourges, to develop a process to produce high-quality colour transparencies for his publications. Using a technique that Williams does her best to describe as “an odd lithography-slash-etching type process” Bruehl was soon producing plates in brilliant colour – a good six years before Kodachrome sheet film came to the market in 1938. His work would soon dominate the front covers of Nast magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and House & Garden. “I think the works from that time are extremely important,” Williams says. “It’s probably some of the only work of that type still in existence.”
You only have to look at the images from that time to understand Williams’ enthusiasm. They almost bleed their brilliant colours, Bruehl’s knack for elaborate tableaux heightened by the extra hues at his disposal: you see it in his presentation of Gilbert Rhode’s Fashions of the Future concept – produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair – or his spectacular portrait of screen femme fatale Gene Tierney in the late 30s. “There’s that quirkiness and technical detail to the works,” Williams says. “It’s quite eccentric. You might have portraits, but then you’ll have broccoli in tutus. They’re these wonderfully staged photos that would have taken hours to set up and construct – right down to the most minute detail.”
But QUT is only playing host to this spectacular collection of Bruehl photographs and ephemera. In the spotlight is a travelling exhibition presented by the National Gallery of Australia, made possible via a gift in 2006 from the American Friends of the NGA, along with support from Bruehl’s oldest son, Anton Bruehl Jnr. The gift included over 100 black-and-white and colour photographs and magazine illustration sheets, much of which can currently be viewed in the Art Museum.
For QUT, it’s a coup to attract such an exhibition: it’s only 23 years since it graduated from being the Queensland Institute of Technology. The Gardens Point campus still wears those days well, with its surplus of business, architecture and engineering students. But Williams agrees In the spotlight is also a mark of how far QUT has come in that time; that it’s an exhibition which could have found its way into Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art rather than her humble university.
“Absolutely. It’s really important for us,” she says. “And it’s great to be working with the National Gallery of Australia, because what they produce is of such high quality. It’s been about ten years since our last NGA exhibition, so it’s nice to revisit that relationship and bring such high quality work not only to the QUT community, but the broader community as well. It’s such a beautiful exhibition.”