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Rayner Hoff, Nereida and Vitalism

Central Coast auction Crowle Collection

Artist George Rayner Hoff (1894 - 1937) was a believer in vitalism, the idea that living things are not merely biological mechanics but powered by a life force, a vital essence. His sculptural art was mostly human subjects, and in trying to portray humans it would seem that in each artwork he is not merely trying to show emotion but demonstrating that vital human essence in stone, bronze or plaster as best as the material allows.

Mixed in with the idea of vitalism is the body culture movement to which Hoff subscribed. This was an interwar movement adopted by nations in order to regenerate decimated and downtrodden populations via the enhancement of physical health. As in Australia, these ideas were often linked to nationalism. Hoff connected the physical ideals of the body culture movement with the essential vital beauty of Australians when he said: “I doubt if ever the Ancient Greeks produced better examples of physical beauty and grace… We don’t allow our bodies to become flaccid and misshapen through stagnation” (G. R. Hoff, ‘Our physique’, Health and Physical Culture, 1 December, Sydney 1931).

We see Hoff’s ideas about vital Australian bodies and culture in his sculpture Idyll: Love and Life (1926). A nude couple rendered in art-deco style is embracing, the man holding the woman in one arm while he holds a child in the other. The nudity of the couple, with the woman only covered by fabric around her lower body, is suggestive of the ancient Greeks Hoff appreciated. Hoff’s voice clearly resides in this marble piece: the strength of our nation is our bodies, our ability to continue ourselves and build back up a population so recently destroyed. We are vital and young, and we will thrive. The subtext underneath this is the sinister message of eugenics. Thankfully lost from mainstream culture, it is important to remember it was part of Hoff’s package of ideas about Australians.

Alongside public works, smaller sculpture and commissioned busts in Hoff’s corpus sits the head of a baby, Nereida (1929-1930). Nereida is a girl’s name stemming from the mythical Greek creatures Nereids. Nereida is the depiction of Hoff’s first daughter of the same name as a newborn. We can guess that Hoff, with his keen interest in classical Greece, likely had a hand in the naming of his daughter. Perhaps her name reflected what Hoff hoped his daughter would become - a type of sea nymph. Someone who grew up strong and beautiful nurtured by time outdoors in the Australian sea and sun. This artwork is unusual in his corpus because it is infinitely more personal than his other works. In the sculpture, now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the baby holds an impersonal gaze at the viewer. She has a snub nose, pouty lips, rounded cheeks and wide set eyes forming a neutral expression.

We see a similar expression on a plaster artwork of the same name soon to be auctioned by Swan Deverell Auctioneers. This plaster rendering is largely the same as the bronze bust. It has the same detail on the plinth under the baby’s head with the words “Nereida Born June Twentieth MCMXIX”. The plaster bust has wider set eyes and higher eyebrows then the bronze one, giving it a slightly different expression. Part of Rayner Hoff’s art practice involved making plaster versions of works before doing the final version in a harder wearing material. For example, he made Idyll: Love and Life in plaster before later doing it in marble. It seems like this bust might be an early draft of the later bronze artwork.

Rayner Hoff is a celebrated Australian interwar Art Deco artist, and his work preserves his idyllic view of the Australian people. Amongst his corpus includes the buttress sculptures and Sacrifice at Hyde Park Anzac War Memorial, the original design of the Holden logo lion, and the bronze sculptures in the South Australian National War Memorial.

The plaster Nereida bust is featured in the Director’s Selection auction at Swan Deverell. This is a unique chance to own an artwork and a piece of personal history from one of Australia’s most celebrated and contentious artists of the interwar period.

A panorama photo of one of Rayner Hoff's two ten-metre-long bronze reliefs on the outside wall of the ANZAC War Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney. Photograph by Jason Ruck.

Article by Isabella Trope


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