Karl Duldig

Karl Duldig was my art teacher at secondary school. Art was not a subject I took particularly seriously. And I certainly didn’t realize back then that Karl was an artist of some renown in the wider world.

The bronze sculpture shown above is by Karl. It is good. It is entitled ‘Kore‘. The name, kore, has come to mean a high-class maiden, often from ancient Greece, draped elegantly, and with an austere attitude. Karl’s kore stands in Central Park in the Melbourne suburb of East Malvern, a suburb in which Karl eventually was to settle.

Karl was born in Przemysl in Poland, the place to which many Ukrainian refugees are fleeing as we speak. My heart goes out to them.

At age 12, Karl moved to Vienna with his family. This is where he became interested in (among other things) sculpture. It is where he studied, developed skills in, and practiced this art form. He did so until the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938 – at which time he realized his Jewish ancestry could put him at peril.

So Karl fled with wife and child to Switzerland and, from there, somehow found his way to Singapore. After a short period practicing his trade in this totally new environment, he was deported to Australia as an enemy alien, and ended up in an internment camp in Tatura, near Shepparton in Victoria.

The war over, Karl acquired Australian citizenship, and set up shop once again, this time in Melbourne. To lend financial support to his artistic inclinations and to his family, he took a full-time job as Art Teacher in a private boy’s school in Melbourne, a school I would describe politely as quirky, and not so politely as shithouse. That’s where I met him, in my capacity as a young student at said school. A student (as I have already flagged) with no special enthusiasm for his subject.

Some of you would have experienced displacement in your lives, owing to flood, fire, foreclosure, or whatever. I commiserate. But, without wanting to belittle the traumatic consequences that doubtless befell those of you so unfortunate, I make the point that Karl’s experiences would have included some very special indignities.

He would have left a comfortable environment in a tearing hurry, with nothing more than a couple of suitcases. He would have left for no better reason than an accident of birth, a funny accent, and a foreign name. Invariably, he would have had to master a new language in his new environment. For most of us, living a comfortable life here in Australia, his experience is beyond the range of the imaginable. To get some sort of handle on it, to stand in his shoes so to speak, to know how he felt about the deal he was dealt, we would somehow have had to hijack his neuronal network for a period and assume it as our own.

Karl’s indignities did not stop happening once he reached Melbourne. He was now captive to a cruel breed who knew how to dish them out with relish. That breed consisted of schoolboys barely out of short pants, of which – much to my shame – I was then one.

One of the games we liked to play was to press all the buttons of any teacher who showed what we regarded as weakness. Karl had plenty of such ‘weaknesses’. He was ingenuous, sincere, conscientious, and foreign, so he played right into our hands. We were merciless in Karl’s class, and made his life hell.

Karl even provided us the materiel that helped us play our games. There was stiff paper on which masterpieces could be created, but which served even better as paper planes. There were coloured paints that were intended to adorn said paper but also, as we were to demonstrate with alacrity, any presenting surface of our choice. There was clay to be sculpted, but which we preferred to use as ammunition.

The guy who mostly took charge of our unscheduled activity in these art classes was a vicious young twerp called Bernie Bancroft (not his real name). He was a choice piece of work if there ever was one, and I figured, correctly as things transpired, he would one day come to a bad end. He often led the charge against Karl and when he did we, like pack animals on the prowl, smelt blood and moved in for the kill.

Back then, I sometimes felt sorry for Karl, but could seldom resist the temptation to have fun with the gang at his expense.

Karl, realizing he could do nothing but grin and bear, was the stoic gentleman, but there was one occasion when he very nearly lost his cool. On that particular day, the project he had in mind for us was to draw spiders. We set to work.

Karl moved amongst us, peering over our shoulders at the banal efforts that flowed halfheartedly from our brushes and pencils, relieved at least to find we were not yet running amok. He smiled benignly at a succession of formless black blobs from which eight spindly straggles inevitably sprouted. We knew our spiders.

Then he came to Bernie. This classroom Philistine, ever seeking mischief, was adding the finishing touches to his drawing. What Karl saw over his shoulder was the representation of a tall glass containing a frothy beverage much coveted by those of us not yet habituated to alcohol. In Yankeeland, it was known as an ice-cream soda, but we in Oz, always adept at making absurd connections, had chosen to dub it a milk spider.

Kark baulked.

Ziss is not a spider, he said.

Ziss is a spider, said Bernie.

Karl raised his voice a notch.

Ziss is not a spider, he said.

Ziss is a spider, said Bernie.

Arms flailing desperately as if to ward off attack, Karl raised his voice another notch.

Ziss is not a spider, he said.

Ziss is a spider, said Bernie.

At some point in this fruitless exchange, Karl must have realized he couldn’t win. He had met his match. His hands fell to his sides, and his reddening face quivered. The class broke into laughter, incapable of mitigation. I imagine Karl was wishing he was back in his beloved pre-war Vienna, or even Singapore. Or, indeed, anywhere else but here. Admitting defeat, he moved on. His demolition, courtesy of a classroom full of little shits, was complete.

I believe it was later that year when the school held an open day, to demonstrate (I assume) to the parents of its young charges, that its services were worth the money they were forking out. When it comes to open days, Art is a subject that, unlike say Mathematics or History, lends itself well to public display. Art is inclined to come into its own on such days.

I was flabbergasted to find one of my artworks was there for all the world to see.

Please give me leave to explain.

The project Karl had in mind for us, on a particular day some weeks prior to open day, was to draw a boxer. I guess he was motivated in his choice by an announcement our headmaster had made at school assembly a day or two earlier. Boxing, he announced, would now be available to us as a optional extra on sports afternoons. Go for it, he added. It’s a gentleman’s sport.

Sport, like Art, was not my bag at all. But I – some Johnnies might say I was a sporting girlie man – was appalled by the idea that clobbering someone around the head with padded fists could be considered sport. In my view it was barbarism. It was gentrified and authorized bullying. The Marquess of Queensberry notwithstanding, where was the sport in that? So, carrying my outrage into Art class, I decided to take Karl’s project seriously. I would not join in the usual shenanigans, at Karl’s expense, with Bernie and the other pack animals. That could wait. Right now, I had more important things on my plate.

I set to work with uncharacteristic fervour. I was on a mission. As I applied pencils, pastels, and paints to the task Karl had set, feelings of revulsion gushed from some well deep inside me and poured out onto the sheet of art paper in front of me. The rudiments of a crude image formed there. In considerable abstraction, it consisted of a boxing ring with a male boxer inside, punch drunk and on the ropes. If I may say so myself, the poor devil was a sorry sight.

Not happy with my creation, I attacked it again and again with a coarse eraser, bruising the surface of the paper and exposing its fibres. This had the unintended effect of giving my work some texture. The boxer looked really roughed up and bloodied now. He was not a pretty sight at all. I imagined there would be cadavers that looked in better shape.

My passion spent, I looked it over and decided it was a mess. But Karl must have collected it afterwards and decided it had something. It gave me quite a shock to discover that, without my knowledge or permission, he had arranged for its display on open day. Of course, it wasn’t alone. There was a smattering of other student art, beside which even my rudimentary effort looked good. Pickings were slim when it came to the portfolios of unmentionable brats.

Somebody must have pressed Karl to bring a sample of his own work for display, because there, amidst all the dross, was a sculpture by him out of baked clay, the size of a human baby, and I suspect about as fragile. Its subject was two wildcats fighting.

Like all of Karl’s work, there was no way it would ever be described as static. This was no lifeless statuette, as inert as the clay it was made from. You would swear those wildcats were in vigorous motion, engaged as they were in their dance of death. Believe me, that’s the impression it gave. Unequivocally.

Just have a look back at the photo of the kore he did, presented for your convenience above. Reflect meanwhile that korai are supposed to exude an ancient and austere dignity. Mortal humanity, assumedly, is way beneath them. But Karl’s kore is human, full of voluptuous and unabashed life.

This was not the last time I was to see those incredible wildcats. Decades later, Karl dead for some years at this juncture, and my boxer drawing long gone to landfill, I visited his former home in East Malvern, converted into a museum now by his relatives and admirers. It was an an unassuming red-brick dwelling from the 1920s, typical of what you might find in the area.

There was an expansive back yard adorned by some of Karl’s sculpted pieces nestled among the greenery as if they rightly belonged there. Which they did. And there was a studio, a later addition to the back of the house. This room, light and airy, show-pieced some of Karl’s equipment. More than this, it housed a selection of his smaller pieces.

Among them was his aggressive pair of wildcats. They jumped out at me, going for my jugular. Instantly, I was transported back in time to my schooldays. The grass I could smell was not the freshly cut lawn in the backyard of the late Karl Duldig, artist of some renown. It belonged to the sporting oval of my old school of somewhat less renown. Was this deja vu or was this deja vu?

I spoke to the woman who had greeted me at reception, Karl’s granddaughter I believe. I told her I had been one of Karl’s students at that school, and how we had treated him so very badly.

We knew, she said.

I ventured an apology for my part in our unconscionable games. Had Karl still been around, I would not have hesitated to deliver it directly to him. As it was, I can only hope and assume his granddaughter accepted it on Karl’s behalf.

Some would say we should respect our elders. I would add the codicil: ‘as long as they warrant it’.

Karl did. Without a shadow of doubt.