Inside the Collection

Bernard Sahm (1926-2011)

Long white ceramic sculpture by Bernard Sahm's work Art Machine No. III' in stoneware
Sculpture, `Art Machine No. III’, stoneware, Sydney, Bernard Sahm, Australia, 1976 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Bernard Sahm was a greatly respected potter whose work is represented in all the major galleries of Australia. He trained and practiced as an industrial draughtsman which gave him skills he was to use in his distinctive ceramic output that frequently included drawn and applied detail. Sahm’s intellectual and frequently original approach to his art took up the counter-cultural spirit of the times – especially from the 1970s – but even as early as 1963 James Gleeson in the Sydney Morning Herald noted Sahm was ‘was never dull or conventional’.

Sahm’s work was tremendously varied with only the columnar ‘pipe’ shape in many works maintaining a thread of kinship from the 1960s through to the 2000s.

Detail of sculpture by Bernard Sahm's work Art Machine No. III' in stoneware
‘Art Machine No III’ detail, Collection: Powerhouse Museum

After working briefly in the 1940s with the Forestry Commission in country NSW he began studying painting and sculpture, and eventually ceramics, at the National Art School, Sydney (1945-52). During his time there he also worked as a decorator at the Martin Boyd Pottery (1949) and, showing his flexibility, also submitted paintings in the 1948, 1949 and 1950 Sulman Prize and the 1951 Wynne, and Blake Prizes.

Sahm married Pam in 1955 and their travels in Europe saw Bernard gain more experience in commercial potteries including six months in ‘Gutenhalde Ceramics’ in Stuttgart, a year at the Crowan Pottery in Cornwall, UK and also visits to potteries in Italy and Greece. In 1959 Sahm established his own pottery at Mosman, in 1961 he began teaching at the National Art School in 1961 and in 1977 became the inaugural Head of Ceramics, Sydney College of the Arts. During his tenure there he succeeded in introducing a cross-disciplinary approach that reflected his own expansive attitude to materials and technique.

At the same time as he was teaching Sahm industriously continued producing bodies of work that were shown at numerous galleries and institutions. Over time the nature of his output increasingly blurred the distinction between ceramics and sculpture while at the same time critiquing society and specifically the art world. His ‘Art Machine No. III’ at the Powerhouse Museum criticises art as a consumable item able to be distilled to a liquid. Part of a large series first presented at the Watters Gallery, Sydney in 1976, such sentiments shocked the sensibilities of the time. After his retirement to a bushland setting in 1984, Sahm turned to nature for his inspiration – but still often large scale and never predictable.

With thanks to the catalogue entry by Gillian McCracken, ‘Wit and Wonder: The ceramic sculptures of Bernard Sahm’, Mosman Art Gallery (10 June – 16 July 2006) pp10-21

6 responses to “Bernard Sahm (1926-2011)

  • What a great piece! The work was also part of a larger installation that was shown at Watters Gallery in 1976. The full installation expanded far more conceptually on the placement of works than the aesthetic display of the 1963 exhibition recounted in Peter and Guy’s Obiturary (SMH 28/03/11). Viewers were taken on a journey about life, the choices we make and the rewards towards our ultimate demise however we may go. Each work contained a statement on life, death and human endeavour. Probably one of the first ‘installations’ in Sydney, if not then certainly in ceramic sculpture.

  • Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
    Many years ago, from October 1974 until April 1975 I have lived in the house of Bernard Sahm with my girlfriend Moira Power. I came by ship from Europe and I think that one son of Bernard played drums in a band that I have played sometimes with there, and the band’s name was (I think) Tamasha.
    Now I can’t remember anymore the address in Mosman. I have also lost touch with the Sahm family after I have left Australia.
    I would love to know what happened to the Sahm family, I have read that Bernard, who I remember as a very nice gentleman, died, but maybe someone is still in that house and can tell me the address, so I can find it on google maps.
    I returned after leaving Australia working on a cruise ship around half of the world to Austria, I finished my studies and lived then for 20 years in Vienna before I moved to Sarasota, Florida and for the last five years I have been living in New York. I’m doing very well, I don’t need anything from the Sahm family, so have no fear, but please let me know how you are and the address of that house so I can look at it from here.
    Kind regards,
    Heinz Lechner

    • I lived in this house, with my mother, from about 1960 to 65.
      I think the address is…..
      No 4 Moran Street, Mosman, Sydney, 2088
      It was the only Home I knew as a child.
      I will never forget Bernard & Pam.
      They gave us shelter in this house, for which I am eternally grateful .
      Jane McLennan

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