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Klaus Moje (1936–2016)

by Nola Anderson

from Canberra Times

In 1966, after driving over 3000 kilometres from Germany to Amman, Jordan to work on a stained glass restoration project, Klaus Moje made a short detour south to do some diving at the coastal town of Aqaba on the northeastern tip of the Red Sea. Moje remembered the piercing blue of the sky against the harsh desert landscape. But most astounding for him was the explosion of colour he found just below the water's surface in the teeming reef life laid bare to him with the simple use of goggles and flippers.

The experience remained with him all his life and would have a profound influence on his work – he often referred to this experience as the beginning of his enduring passion for colour. While it would take some years for the full strength of Moje's colour language to emerge, once it did he never let go.

Moje's ability to keep faith with the vision was the mark of a great artist. He also kept the flippers: perhaps a talisman but more likely they just never wore out. Moje went on to become one of the most influential artists working in glass both in Australia and internationally, with his achievements recognised through many substantial awards and an AO in 2006.

It was not until Moje's solo shows in Berlin and Frankfurt in 1981 and 1982 that the full impact of his colour work began to make itself known on the European scene. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen. In fact there were no direct roots or influences one could point to. Quite literally Moje had arrived there through his own endeavours in a process which he described as "sehnsucht" or searching for something that was as yet unknown. The path had by no means been clear cut. By the age of 19 he had completed an apprenticeship in his father's small glass grinding business and won a scholarship which gave him a small stipend and the chance to complete a masters course at the vocational glass school in Hadamar. It was a sound technical education which he valued highly, but not one that fed the soul or the intellect. Again Moje did that for himself, first with second hand books on glass from the specials bin at Dr Wohlers Bookshop and then with increasing breadth to Shakespeare, Homer, Schiller, Brecht, Hesse and many others in which he found the thrill of drama and the discipline of structure.

By the time Moje's work appeared in the Berlin and Frankfurt exhibitions it was evident he had travelled quite a different path to that of his contemporaries. This was seen first in his use of the mosaic technique which he developed using glass cane rods from the domestic button and jewellery trade – this alone set him apart from the cast crystal and clear blown work of the major European design houses - and second for his alarming disregard for toning down the colour. While critic and curator Edgar Kaufmann had actually praised a 1979 international survey of contemporary glass at Corning for its artists' colour palette of "clarified fog" – Kaufmann seemed to intend no irony – Moje had embarked on a completely different palette in which vibrant blues, reds and yellows hurtled across the flat surface of his large bowl forms. It was enough to have his work rejected from the prestigious Frankfurt Triennale in 1978. Later, former director of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Axel von Saldern, who had known Klaus' work in the early Hamburg years, teased him for becoming even more "bundt", or gaudy, as the years progressed.

Collectors, galleries and museums were however taking notice both in Europe and the United States where he had become known through his teaching and exhibitions. Through his own workshop gallery he had introduced many American artists to Germany; he had developed international contacts through his work as a director for the World Crafts Council and had established contact with the American company Bullseye which succeeded in producing a new glass specifically for his mosaic technique. He had had three retrospectives – unusual for that time in Europe – and was represented by the major commercial glass galleries in New York and Michigan. This is when Udo Sellbach, then director of the Canberra School of Art, invited Moje to establish the School's glass workshop: it was the right offer at the right time. Moje and his second wife Brigitte, a ceramicist, arrived in Canberra in August 1982 having ditching the pre-booked Sydney to Canberra flight in order to travel by car and enjoy the Australian landscape.

Moje will be remembered by many as a warm and generous friend and mentor but no more so than by his students at the Canberra School of Art. It is a measure of his greatness as a teacher that students who have graduated many years ago still fondly call him Pappa. In Moje's view teaching was an important responsibility and he had accepted Sellbach's invitation because it was an opportunity to create a teaching environment based on values he held dearly. "It was", he had said, " the opportunity to create an art school that we all wanted". The vision was influenced in part by the legacies Moje had encountered working with ex-Bauhaus teachers and students in post-war Germany. He was however selective in which Bauhaus principles he adapted. He especially rejected, for example, any tendency for a master to impose their personal aesthetic or ideology on the students. On the other hand there were Bauhaus teachers whose work he admired including Lothar Schreyer, Paul Klee and Wasily Kandinsky.

These were the poets and visionaries who encouraged personal exploration and valued the individual spirit. For Moje a successful student was one whose work "revealed their personality and uniqueness as well as an understanding of form, content and craftsmanship". Moje considered self-discipline to be an essential part of the creative process – and apparently this also extended to turning up on time.

Following his ten year tenure at the School Moje once again focused on his own work and subsequently he and Brigitte established a studio at Wapengo on the New South Wales south coast. Here was a return to being close to the land and sea, themes which had always figured strongly in his work. In earlier years he had captured in carefully composed photographic images the geometry of snow covered fields in Hamburg and the remarkable landscapes of the Jordanian desert. No less in Australia, Moje responded to this continent's own version of grandeur from the Monaro Plain to the rough rock strewn coast off Tathra's beaches. The references are there to see in much of his work.

In his later years Moje wished to focus on wall panels rather than large bowl forms. This was a logical step given that he had always considered the bowl forms as a flat canvas – his preference was to photograph them from above to emphasise this aspect. One of the most stunning works in this format is the Portland Panels completed in 2007 and now held by the Corning Museum of Glass. A team of nine artists assisted Moje to produce the work which measures over seven metres in length. Moje saw this piece as a transitional work: it embodies the wonderful three dimensional puzzles developed in earlier pieces and looks forward to the more complicated play of light and depth found in the panels of the last two or three years. These have figured prominently in his recent exhibitions such as those at Sabbia, Sydney and Lorch & Seidel, Berlin in 2015.

Moje thought often and deeply about his work, although he rarely used words to talk about it. As did Paul Klee, an artist he deeply admired, he felt words were only a compromise when in the end it was the art that spoke most eloquently. "Every art work should have a little bit of mystery", he said, "sometimes you are surprised what comes out beyond the work".

Moje will be remembered by many as a warm and generous friend, teacher and mentor. He is held dearly by his wife Brigitte and children Amos and Danilo, Jonas and Mascha.

* Nola Anderson is an arts writer who is currently writing a book on the life and work of Klaus Moje.

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Citation details

Nola Anderson, 'Moje, Klaus (1936–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/moje-klaus-32837/text40860, accessed 24 July 2024.

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

5 October, 1936
Germany

Death

24 September, 2016 (aged 79)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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