Surging forward: the work of Inge King

Inge King never planned on working as a domestic servant in England.

But after fleeing Germany in early 1939 to escape the oncoming war, working for a year was a welcome respite.

Born Ingeborg Neufeld to a Jewish family in Germany in 1915, King accepted a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Arts after a year of working as a maid.

She travelled to Glasgow and New York, honing her postmodern sculptures and meeting her future husband, Grahame.

You may not know her story.

You may not know her name.

But if you live in Melbourne, you almost certainly know her work.

King’s most famous sculpture sits on a grassy hill below the Arts Centre spire in Melbourne’s CBD.

Over sixteen feet tall, four black steel waves overlook bustling pedestrians headed down St Kilda road where on Sundays, an artsy market attracts tourists and local families alike.

Some take refuge under the shade of the waves, eating ice cream while the sounds of buskers and delighted children carry through the air.

This is the home of Forward Surge, a beloved public sculpture created by King, which she worked on for two years.

Like most of her large scale sculptural works she started out working in maquette (a small scale version of a sculpture) creating a version of Forward Surge one twelfth the size of the eventual finished version.

King’s public sculptures are dotted around Melbourne.

A short walk from Forward Surge is Shearwater, a 25 foot tall polychrome steel figure of a bird in flight.

In 2018 Exxonmobil, Shearwater’s original owners, moved their offices and the sculpture was put up for auction.

It was spared by a dramatic last minute bid from Melbourne City Councillor Nick Reece to ask the corporation to donate the sculpture; such is the power of King’s public works.

Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is attempting to address the issue of anonymity of Australian female artists with their Know my name campaign.

Only 25% of the NGA’s Australian art collection and 33% of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection consists of work by women artists, and the gallery is running a series of events and exhibitions to highlight the historical importance of female artists in Australia.

Inge King is one of the featured artists.

Ry Haskings remembers trying to run up the waves of Forward Surge as a child.

Now, as a lecturer in art at La Trobe University and co-director at Conners Conners Gallery at Fitzroy Town Hall in Melbourne’s north, he thinks people who are immersed in Melbourne’s arts scene are likely to know who Inge King is, but the general public less so.

“We have a lot of large abstract art around us in Melbourne – Inge King starts to blend into the larger realm of large abstract sculpture and maybe for that reason, people look at it and turn away,” he explains.

“They’re not so much engaged with who made the work and why it exists; a lot of her work has been purchased or commissioned for public artworks around Melbourne, at La Trobe and other universities, so for that reason she’s sort of dotted around the landscape.”

When asked how women’s work in the Australian arts scene has been appreciated, Dr Haskings says emphatically that it’s “definitely undervalued.”

“Studies have found that women are underrepresented – I think universities, museums and other organisations are becoming aware of this and taking steps to correct it,” he says.

The Countess report is one place where data about this has been collected, showing that while 74% of visual art graduates are women, men receive more accolades and shows in public art galleries, museums and prizes.

Dr Haskings is curating an upcoming exhibit of some of King’s lesser known works which he describes as “very playful.”

“We’re focussing on some of her collages; we’re really interested in them because they’re so different from her sculptural work,” he says.

“Alongside that we’ll also have three smaller sculptures which are examples of when she was developing skills in welding early on…They’re quite rough and gestural as well, and I guess we’re capturing some of that moment in her practice for the exhibition.”

It’s easy to imagine a world when Inge King’s contribution to Melbourne’s rich arts culture never existed.

Two of King’s sisters also fled Germany when Hitler came into power; a third stayed, and died in the Holocaust.

But to sit and watch people walk by King’s magnum opus, Forward Surge and watch small children try to climb its imposing curves, it almost seems impossible.

The works of Inge King embody Melbourne itself, and all that we hold dear.

All we have to do is know her name.