Working with tradition: Clare Milledge’s reverse glass paintings

Australian artist and academic Clare Milledge’s 2018 series, Sacks of Wind: A Rock Harder than Rock, is made with the hinterglasmalerei technique – or reverse glass painting – a once-popular folk artform that has become a mainstay of Milledge’s practice.

By Clare Milledge

Hinterglasmalerei literally means ‘behind-glass painting’ in German. I came to this technique by accident. I was presenting a video on a wall in a darkened space but wanted to create a reflection on the floor so that the zooming technique I’d used would be amplified. Having previously worked with reflection rather grungily and disastrously with recycled car oil, I was looking for something less effusive; so I painted the underside of glass square panels with asphaltum and laid them on the gallery floor.

A few years later, I was preparing for a solo exhibition. I had a three-month year-old baby and no money or time. Down a laneway in Sydney’s Marrickville I spotted a set of gilded picture frames and glass sheets and impulsively grabbed them. With some old oil paint and a Watchtower magazine that had been proffered to me earlier, this became the working material for my show. Because my baby would wake often, I had to wear latex gloves and paint very quickly, roughly peeling them off whenever he woke. Once I’d begun working in this way, it sort of stuck. I think this is indicative of all my processes – I like to be receptive and to gather material curiously, rather than direct things very specifically.

I didn’t really know that painting on the back of glass was called hinterglasmalerei until my then supervisor at Sydney College of the Arts the artist Matthys Gerber pointed it out to me. The technique dates back to Late Antiquity in Byzantium and has taken various forms since then. I was quite interested in its use by early 20th century artists such as Paul Klee, Gabriele Münter who introduced it to Vasiliy Kandinsky around 1908 and Josef Albers.

A lot of my work deals with what I see as a misguided human obsession with transcendence from the earth, and so the fact that the technique of hinterglasmalerei has been historically used primarily in religious iconography appeals to me. There are two main techniques, one where the light passes through the glass, and the other where the light passes through from the front of the glass and reflects back to the viewer.

Part of my receptive process means that works take a long time to form and are gathered across multiple platforms and through seemingly unrelated portals. My role is to tenuously bring them together, producing new forms. For example, in the NGV Triennial all of the works come from my exhibition Sacks of Wind: a Rock Harder than Rock, 2018. These works contain visual fragments and titles from a variety of sources: texts on magic I have studied for around ten years; notes from my son’s magic card games, and books I read as a teenager. I could point out specific references but, in a way, the more I do this the more the power of the work dies for me. I take pleasure from hearing people finding their own references and connections within the text and imagery. For example, in the early stages of painting, a few scruffy and very muddy eight-year-olds dropped by on their bikes to the shed where I was working in northern NSW. After solemnly considering a geometric painting for a while, one of them declared ‘that’s Finn from Adventure Time’.

I was recently discussing with a colleague this unnameable thing that makes a work powerful and she used the word ‘mute’. I think that’s something important to remember, naming something has consequences: it limits it, holds it and forms it. It gives it power but it’s a formed power; I like to leave a bit of space for the viewer.

Dr Clare Milledge is an artist and Senior Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design who lives and works between the lands of the Arakwal people in Bundjalung country (Broken Head, northern NSW) and the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people (Paddington, Sydney). Milledge’s works are on display on Ground Level at NGV International until 18 April 2021.