Australian Modernism: Now, Then and Always

“Modernism released us from the constraints of everything that had gone before with a euphoric sense of freedom”

– Arthur Erickson, architect

Modernism came to Australia gradually, then all at once. It was less a coherent movement and more a constellation of ideas – ideas that bit by bit, detonated how we look at, understand and categorise art. In Australia, these ideas took on a distinctly Antipodean character. Artists experimented with form, subject matter and technique to investigate society, culture, the self and the landscape.

The story of Australian Modernism is sprawling, contestable and under constant revision. Despite this, there remain several tenets around which we can orientate ourselves: two world wars, industrialisation, social unrest and cross-cultural exchange. These factors spurred art that denied, dismantled and rebuilt convention, all while investigating what it means to be Australian. From the pastel landscapes of the Heidelberg School to pure abstraction, this is the story of Australian Modernism.  


Overcoming Adversity 

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Australia endured testing moments. These included two world wars, a major economic depression and the encroachment of industrialization. Australian art, once dominated by a European colonial sensibility, evolved to reflect this. It was not only a way to document what was happening, it was a way to expose, challenge and change a burgeoning culture. 

 

Arthur Boyd - 'Portrait and Skull'

 

The Rise of Women Artists

Grace Cossington Smith’s ‘The Sock Knitter’ (1915) is considered by some art historians Australia’s first Modernist painting. In it, the artist’s sister Madge is pictured knitting socks for the war effort. Rather than taking a realistic approach, this work compresses space, using bright colours and patterns to flatten perspective. Cossington Smith was perhaps influenced by post-impressionist artist Cezanne, whose work she learnt of at Antonio Dattilo Rubbo’s atelier. 


Grace Cossington Smith - 'The Sock Knitter'

 

Not only aesthetically innovative, ‘The Sock Knitter’ also harbours political undertones. During the First World War, Cossington Smith campaigned for increased women’s involvement, finding their relegation to just knitting socks paternalistic. In this way, ‘The Sock Knitter’ is only about knitting, it’s about women only being able to knit socks. 

Indeed, while the men fought at war, it was women artists back home who advanced Modernism. Artists like Ethel Spowers, Lesbia Thorpe and Margaret Preston helped propel Australia into a new form of image-making. While at the time they were often relegated as hobbyists, they are now recognised as pioneers of cutting-edge aesthetic. 

 

Ethel Spowers - 'Durham Cathedral'

 

A Critical Eye 

War did not only affect who made art, it changed the look of art. Both Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd served in the Second World War and went on to become instrumental figures in Modernism. In their work, there is a bracing subjectivism. It is as though the experience of war was so profoundly effective - both physically and emotionally - that the world could never look neutral again. 

In Albert Tucker’s ‘Battlefield’ (1943) three withered soldiers slump together. The work is informed by Tucker’s conscription to the Heidelberg Military Hospital during World War II. Here he drew patients suffering from wounds and mental illnesses caused by battle, witnessing first hand the horrors and madness of war. ‘Battlefield’ is thus an image of trauma, death and existential terror.

 

Albert Tucker - 'Battlefield'
 

Rather than war, Boyd’s most notable series considers a different blight of Australian history: the violent oppression of the Aboriginal population. His iconic Bride works see a couple, one an Aboriginal man and the other a mixed-race woman, haunting the harsh Australian landscape. At moments enigmatic, alienated and tormented, these works draw out the emotional reality of colonisation. 

 

Albert Tucker - 'Half Caste Child' (1957)

 

While difficult subject matter, Tucker and Boyd’s willingness to stare into the darkest corners of human nature is core to Modernism’s legacy. Movements like surrealism, expressionism and social realism peeled back society’s facades to expose what lay beneath. This, many Modernists believed, was the route towards betterment. Without addressing one’s history, one cannot expect a brighter future. 


Exposure from Far Off Lands

Modernist artists in Australia could not have made the advancements they did without cross-cultural exchange. Technological advancements saw information travelling with an unprecedented ease across seas. In 1913, Norah Simpson returned from Europe with reproductions of Van Goghs, Gauguins and Cezannes, thus exposing her peers at Dattilo Rubbo’s atelier to their ideas. 

The war also saw a rise in migration. Artists like Mirka Mora and Judy Cassab fled the Holocaust to settle in Australia, bringing their own unique multicultural perspectives. Yosl Bergner, an Austrian-born Poland-raised artist, fled Europe before war broke out, sensing climbing antisemitism. His father believed Australia could be their Promised Land. While this proved just fantasy, Bergner went on to produce some of the country’s first overtly political fine art. Albert Tucker once said that Bergner’s images were “carriers of another and totally different tradition, they made a physical reality of the whole expressionist idea for us.” Put simply, Bergner brought German Expressionism to the Antipodeans. 

 

Mirka Mora - 'The Angel's Embrace'

 

In 1939, an exhibition of French and British contemporary art, sponsored by Sir Keith Murdoch’s Herald and Weekly Times, came to Australia. It featured masterpieces by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Picasso, Matisse, Braque and more – all for affordable prices. Alas however, the era’s cultural leadership did not recognise these artists as visionaries with the then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria denigrating them instead as “degenerates and perverts”. What was secured however, was exposure. Because of the war, the Herald exhibition was stuck in Australia till 1946. It was subsequently seen by tens of thousands of people, some of whom would forge the next generation of rule-breakers. 


New Horizons  

The overcoming of adversity reveals new perspectives. As Modernism questioned long held aesthetic and social conventions, different ways of looking at the world emerged. To see this shift at work, we can compare two Australian landscape paintings: Frederick McCubbin’s ‘Landscape’ (1914) and Sidney Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly’ (1946). 

 

Frederick McCubbin’s ‘Landscape’ (left) and Sidney Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly’ (right)

 

Created just thirty-two years apart, these works are ideologically in different universes. McCubbin’s landscape is emptied of human presence, washed in pastels and redolent of British impressionism. It is as though McCubbin, an Englishman in Australia, has stumbled across this vista and decided to capture it en plein air. Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly’ on the other hand, is highly imaginative. It features a flat, almost abstract Ned Kelly in a sun-drenched landscape. If McCubbin obfuscates artistic intervention, Kelly exaggerates it. 

Both ‘Landscape’ and ‘Ned Kelly’ are invested in Australia’s national identity. McCubbin romanticizes the country, while Nolan exposes its underlying myths. As art historian Andrew Sayers reflects:

“Coming as they did from an immediate post–war milieu, Nolan’s paintings had a particular and personal urgency.”

That you can see the blue sky through his helmet suggests that Nolan’s Kelly is not intended to be a real person, but rather a phantom of Australian identity. The landscape is Kelly and Kelly is Australia. 

“We live in a young society still making its myths. The emergence of myth is a continuous social activity. In the growth and transformation of its myths a society achieves its own sense of identity”

– Bernard Smith in the 1959 Antipodean Manifesto 

Back in the city, Charles Blackman was also excavating society. Rather than the outback however, his Schoolgirl series evoke the undercurrent of unease flowing from urbanisation. Like Nolan, he injected the personal into his work, later going to depict Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ through the prism of his then wife’s diminishing eyesight. 

 

Charles Blackman - 'Alice in Wonderland'

 

Nolan, Blackman and Tucker were nurtured by Heide: the property-cross-commune  owned by John and Sunday Reed in Melbourne’s east. Just as cultural exchange accelerated Modernism, as did exchange between individuals. In a big way, Heide enabled this. The Reeds brought together Melbourne’s most avant-garde artists, writers and intellectuals, allowing Nolan, Blackman and Tucker to test, break and rebuild boundaries together. 


A Still Unfurling Legacy 

The legacy of Modernism persists. At its core, this movement was about challenging aesthetic and cultural conventions. It encouraged different kinds of people to create art in different ways. Rather than replicating the landscape genre, artists like Nolan excavated it for national myth. In his role, Charles Blackman pursued a whole-heartedly personal practice, while artists like Ethel Spowers proved women could be ground-breakers. 

As many collectors know, the Modern canon is fertile ground. From James Gleeson’s surrealism to Vic O’Connor and Yosl Bergner’s social realism and Albert Namatjira’s singularity, there’s something for everyone. The movement is also under ongoing revision, with the lack of emphasis on female artists like Joy Hester and Anne Marie Hall and non-white artists only now being redressed. Like the art itself, Modernism is open to provocation. So, what do you have to say?