Researching Gertrude Langer

 'A new perspective on art history in Australia' : Researching Gertrude Langer

The Modernist movement in art and architecture might not have evolved so quickly in Brisbane were it not for the efforts of Austrian born emigres, Doctors Karl and Gertrude Langer. An architect, Karl Langer designed many distinguished modernist style buildings in Brisbane as well as lecturing in architecture at UQ. Gertrude, an art historian, worked for The Courier Mail as a critic from the mid 1950s until her death in 1984.1 She regularly gave lectures in Brisbane, championing modern art and artists.


Gertrude was committed to the development of cultural and artistic life in Queensland. She was awarded an OBE for her services to the arts in 1968 while Karl Langer was appointed to the original board of the Australian Council for the Arts (The Australia Council). Active members of many cultural organisations, the Langers joined the Queensland Art Gallery Society in 1952. Gertrude served on the committee from 1956 to 1981, was President in 1965, 1966, 1974 and 1975. Karl also held positions of President and Vice President.2 During the 1960s, Gertrude strongly advocated for the construction of a new Queensland Art Gallery – the gallery was completed in her lifetime and is still standing at the South Bank site today, adjacent to the Gallery of Modern Art.

Art history Honours student, Shirley Millett knows more about the story of Gertrude Langer than most. She’s spent months in the Fryer Library researching papers from the Gertrude Langer collection and other publications for her thesis. In answering a few questions about her research, Shirley reveals some of the story behind the Langers and how they helped to transform the cultural life of Queensland.


How did you become interested in Gertrude Langer?

Gertrude Langer’s archive has revealed a historiography of art and art criticism in Australia that was hidden behind what was easily visible; Langer’s career as an art reviewer, and her reputation as a modernist. I only came to be interested in Langer through the suggestion of a Fryer librarian, made conversationally to my supervisor, who I think knew that I was very attracted by archival research.

How did the Langers come to be based in Brisbane?

Gertrude and Karl met at University in Vienna in the 1930s, and worked together in architectural practice in Vienna after they graduated. They left Austria in 1938, before the Anschluss. They arrived in Australia in 1939, and after a short time in Sydney they moved to Brisbane where Karl found employment. Many more Austrians came to Australia during World War II.


What particular threads or themes are you exploring at the moment?

I’m focusing on the period around the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Federal Government, interested in promoting a distinct image of Australia as a nation through the arts, then introduced its first Cultural Policy. Around the same time the American Art Critic Clement Greenberg made a visit to Australia. Both of these events are recorded in Langer’s archive, and were influential on her efforts to make art and culture available to more Australians.

What materials have you used from the Fryer collection and what were the most valuable items for your research?

I have accessed only a small percentage of the Gertrude Langer Collection, 13 of the 119 boxes (and 3 packages). I have also used books and journals from Fryer including Art and AustraliaLip, (a short-lived 1970s feminist arts journal), and the 1962 edition of Australian Art Historian Bernard Smith’s Australian painting today.

The most valuable items for my research are documents from Gertrude Langer’s archive because they provide a new perspective on art history in Australia.

What has been the most interesting discovery you’ve made on Gertrude Langer?

A tiny original work on paper painted in red and gold was folded in a letter from Australian artist Roy Churcher. He added the message ‘Here are three wise Budda men coming to wish you the best of the season.’

The Fryer Library holds the collections of Gertrude Langer and Karl Langer. Recently donated material has been added to the Gertrude Langer Collection (UQFL157 acc150908). This includes some of the last photographs of Gertrude taken at Binna Burra on the day she died and Karl Langer's last diary.

1. In Memory of Dr Gertrude Langer O.B.E., 1908-84 (South Brisbane : Queensland Art Gallery,1985), 4.

2. Ibid., 4.


Last updated:
21 May 2017