Michael Schlieper (1947-2015)

April 18, 2015
Michael Schlieper, 'But What's Behind It?'
Michael Schlieper, 'But What's Behind It?'

Artists with superior technical abilities are often studies in disappointment. When you can paint like an Old Master it is depressing to see the kind of stuff that turns up in Biennales and public collections. Neither can one un-learn abilities that have become second nature. It’s a predicament that breeds fatalism.

Michael Schlieper had all the skills, and a suitably ironic outlook on life. He was not by nature a self-promoter and had grown accustomed to the idea of being terminally unfashionable. When it was hard to sell a picture he turned to his other lifelong passion, the races. Schlieper would calculate the odds with the same commitment he brought to bear on a landscape.

Schlieper was born on 16 September 1947, in the Bavarian town of Brannenburg. He was ten years old when his family migrated to Australia. In his first years at school, in Narrabeen and Roseville, he spoke very little English, which must have encouraged a sense of himself as an outsider. He eventually won a scholarship to Sydney University but it was never taken up. Instead he became a copy boy at the Telegraph, then a cadet journalist on the racing section.

He left to study at Alexander Mackie, where he obtained a Diploma of Education, and painted in both Abstract and figurative Expressionist styles. Upon graduation he was sent to Bathurst for a year’s prac teaching. He never took to teaching, but became enamoured of the Australian bush. In this environment he settled on a precise form of realism that would become a signature style.

Throughout his life Schlieper would paint bush landscapes with near-photographic clarity and bleakly humorous titles. A picture of a hill by the roadside is called But What’s Behind It? A massive gum with bark peeling off in strips, is I Am the Showoff.

Michael Schlieper, 'I Am the Showoff'

Michael Schlieper, ‘I Am the Showoff’

He also produced figurative works on many themes with a touch of surrealist whimsy. There was an exhibition almost every year, the first being with Holdsworth Galleries in 1974, then with Rex Irwin, Queen Street Fine Art, and the Charles Hewitt Gallery.

Although he was largely self-taught, Schlieper’s technical abilities developed to the point where he could restore and copy paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. His wit and intellect found an outlet in a large body of immaculate pen and ink drawings that ventured into metaphysical and philosophical territory.

In 2007, Schlieper was diagnosed with early onset Fronto-Temporal Dementia. The disease was already well advanced, and it brought his painting to a standstill that year. His brother Nick records how Michael rallied “and in a superhuman feat of ‘mind over mind’… managed to produce one final full exhibition for 2009.” In his last years he found a full-time carer in his mother, who is still with us at the age of 98. He passed away on 3 March.

Nick Schlieper has written a tribute to an older brother who became a mentor to him after their father died when the boys were 11 and 22 years old.

“He taught me how to think rigorously and argue my case vehemently. He taught me how to really read. He introduced me to politics. He introduced me to drugs. He introduced me to the thrill of gambling. He introduced me to jazz. He pushed me to study classical music. He taught me how to look at art of all kinds. He taught me how to think about art. He taught me how to talk about art. And no-one was more pleased than he, when I became old enough to disagree with him and stand on my own feet!”

Argumentative, humorous and self-effacing, Schlieper never achieved the recognition his talents deserved. Although he had dedicated collectors, he remains in margins of Australian art. He would have found it bitterly funny if, after his death, his works began to grow in value and popularity.

Michael Schlieper is survived by his mother, Gisela; brother, Nick, and sister, Steph Gardner.