One of the striking things I have discovered while researching Australian and international jewellery in preparation for the exhibition A fine possession: jewellery and identity, is the way in which the contemporary Australian jewellery scene has been shaped by European tradition. Beginning my research as a complete novice on the subject of jewellery, I came in with the big (and unconscious) assumption that contemporary jewellery generally, and contemporary Australian jewellery in particular, is a craft far removed from traditional concepts and practices of jewellery making. To my surprise and fascination I found that contemporary Australian jewellery has been influenced by a number of innovative Europeans who visited and lectured in Australia and who immigrated to here in late 20th century, bringing with them ideas and skills. My assumptions were completely blown out of the water when I discovered more about jeweller Johannes Kuhnen’s and his piece, the Interchangeable Pendant System 3.2.
Johannes Kuhnen was born in 1952 in Essen, West Germany. Developing a passion for jewellery making at an early age, he began a goldsmith’s apprenticeship in Düsseldorf, Germany under Professor Friedrich Becker in the early 1970s. He then attended the Fachoberschule für Gestaltung, and Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences), in Düsseldorf, Germany, from 1973-1978. Kuhnen moved to Australia in 1981 and has regularly exhibited in Australia, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, England and Switzerland.
Kuhnen’s early mentor, Becker, was a jeweller with a private studio, Professor at Fachhochshule in Düsseldorf and a trained aeronautical engineer. He gave Kuhnen a unique design perspective and a deep knowledge of technical process. The integration of industrial practice and the arts in Germany was encouraged after the Second World War and many jewellers were hired as designers during the post war boom of industrial manufacture. However, with the economic difficulties of the 1970s and 80s jewellers saw a departure from mainstream manufacture, and moved back toward individual and specialised practices. Jewellers like Becker brought the technical industrial skills they had developed to their private studios, and passed these skills on to their apprentices – jewellers like Kuhnen, who would eventually call Australia home.
While Johannes Kuhnen’s work retains elements of Bauhaus philosophy and European Constructivism, it is his own personal approach which elevates his work to something really special. His pieces are kinetic, alluring, industrial, colourful, and geometric. Kuhnen’s style is inspired by his resourcefulness. Almost every aspect of design that is distinctively ‘Kuhnen’ is governed by his approach to materials and manufacture. He refers to this as a “link of design and materiality”. His style has been largely shaped by the challenges which arise from using aluminium. In fact, his dominant use of aluminium came about simply because other materials, like gold, were too expensive and could not take on colour. The bold colour combinations typical of Kuhnen’s pieces are the result of extensive experiments in absorptive dying of anodised surfaces conducted in his own specialised studio before he moved to Australia; experiments which led him to be the first to successfully master the process of anodising aluminium. The dynamic colour and form of the Interchangeable Pendent System 3.2, on display at A Fine Possession: jewellery and identity, attests to Kuhnen’s ingenuity when faced with the technical limitations metals can present. This innovative approach means individual pieces are ever refined – they are prototypes in an ongoing quest for perfection, the product of which is a progressive series of pieces which illustrate his desire for technical perfection and map the evolution of his work.
Johannes Kuhnen has been involved with the School of Art at the Australian National University for over twenty years, his most prominent role being that of Senior Lecturer of the Gold and Silversmithing Workshop. While Kuhnen has developed much of his celebrated recent work in association with the Canberra School of Art, what is most impressive is the impact he has had on the quality of workmanship and design of his students’ work.
When you come to see A Fine Possession: jewellery and identity, if you’re a jewellery layman like me, you will be struck by the diversity of jewellery from around the world. But you will also be surprised by similarities between 20th century European and contemporary Australian works. As with any evolution, if you only focus on a few snippets of the process you will miss the big picture. So, as you’re meandering through the exhibition, and you move from the wonderful pieces of historic European jewellery to the striking and provocative contemporary Australian works, take a minute to ponder on the remarkable continuity that lies before you and please do not miss Johannes Kuhnen’s Interchangeable Pendent System 3.2, one of my favourite objects
Written by Dionysia McPherson, curatorial intern.