Modernism and Australia: Documents on Art, Design and Architecture 1917–1967

Book Review

This football-sized collection compacts a breathtaking sweep of opinion on modern art, design, architecture, town planning, education and cultural politics. Modernism and Australia is nonetheless selective, setting up representative contemporary arguments for, against, and ring-side, slogging out over many rounds just what constituted a modern, Australian culture. Not surprisingly, we find that Australian modernism took a variety of forms and faced what the editors call a complex pattern of reception.

It is fascinating to dip into or read through a documentary field so broadly and intelligently laid out. In our art history departments, as in our art, design and architecture schools, we often lazily teach art-form histories as parallel (and mutually invisible) institutional worlds. This volume bridges disciplinary boundaries, and as such is an invaluable source-book. It follows the research and pedagogic pathways of Joan Kerr’s collaborative Dictionary of Australian Art projects, which have been recently launched online, and Bernard Smith’s useful Documents On Art and Taste in Australia 1770-1914 (OUP, 1975). Modernism and Australia starts with an excerpt from the same year as Smith’s last Document (an extract from a 1916 lecture by the Heidelberg painter and National Gallery teacher Frederick McCubbin). Modernism and Australia pays implicit homage to Smith by including an oft-cited, virulent polemic from another anti-modern: Norman Lindsay’s notorious 1916 tract, ‘A Modernist Malady’. As for the volume’s end-point of 1967, it also spills into 1968 with Bernard Boles’ rage against the tragic sell-off of John Power’s collection of international modern art.

Smart research has shaken out our regional archives, airing both familiar and overlooked perspectives. The breadth of this collection also prompts consideration on how we so often accept what we read with little critical thought given to the selective cultural politics and institutional priorities that underpin art history books and exhibitions. For instance, I grew up thinking that there were really only two modernisms, neatly split into two ethical worlds, and I never really questioned whether this was really the case, or why. Ours was a Melbourne-centric, communist household, and so Bernard Smith’s partisan and declarative Place, Taste and Tradition (1945) guided all family opinion on modern art.1 Smith magisterially dismissed early modernist experiments amongst students in the Sydney ateliers in the ’teens and ’twenties as a politically conservative, sub-Cézanne flash in the pan. These early stirrings were technical and transitional rather than rebellious, Smith contended, compared with the more virile avant-gardism of the younger, less privileged and largely male artists of his own generation. The creative lefties grouped around the Social Realists and Angry Penguins combined aesthetic and political radicalism as an urgent response to fascism, within a broader, ascendant left-labour politics. Their artistic efforts expressed the great forces of history, as the earlier moderns had failed to do. While Smith shifted tack in his more influential 1962 survey Australian Painting, this ethical divide somehow got stuck in many young minds. It was easy to theorise a matrix of radical aesthetics and radical politics, and so much harder to tally those earlier progressive modernist experiments with their often staunchly conservative, religious, anti-labour and pro-Imperial sentiments.

Historians have since corrected Smith’s dismissal of early Sydney modernism by reinstating artists such as Grace Cossington Smith, Thea Proctor, Adrien Feint, Roy de Maistre, Adelaide Perry, Jesse Traill, Violet Teague and a raft of others in the forefront of Australian modernity. Modernism and Australia also bears the fruit of feminist archival digs which broadened the Australian art historical archive from the mid-1970s. Later studies revalued jazz-style commercial art and design, post impressionist colour and simplification of form, innovative crafts, the primitivist appropriation of Aboriginal art and other accoutrements of domestic modernism. These concerns had propelled women into the cultural professions as never before, part of the modernising social and cultural shifts further accelerated by the Great War. Many of these artists and designers were middle class, unmarried or childless: in life and art they were a living advertisement for the Modern Woman. Their work embodied new, scientific colour theories, simplified forms, modern design and decoration. This vision of Australia is well documented in this volume through informed comment on chic urban interiors, arcade shopping and harbour life, international travel, the leafy calm of the outer-suburban garden studio and progressive adventures in cross-cultural tourism. The documents are there for the record, providing ample evidence of the pre-eminent importance of commerce, commodity forms and domestic modernism in bringing Australian culture up-to-date.

Leafing through Modernism and Australia, we sense how market forces fostered a taste for the moderne in our metropolitan apartment blocks, shops, cinemas and tea rooms. Art deco’s craft origins, neo-classical forms and curved, soft lines provided a popular, symbolic approximation of function, utility, speed and modernity. This might partly explain the strident, oppositional tone of more hard-line architectural and design spruikers who advocated the more austere option of Bauhaus modern. But the book reminds us that styles and attitudes are never so hard and fast. The lavish displays in the 1929 Burdekin House exhibition, for instance, effortlessly combined lifestyle design and commerce. Artist Roy de Maistre had viewed the 1925 ‘Exposition Internationale des Artes Décoratifs’ in Paris, and initiated this popular Burdekin House exhibition of domestic art and design, heavily promoted by the lifestyle magazine The Home. Art historians usually focus on the artists who fitted out, designed furniture, painted murals or lent artworks for these exhibition rooms in tasteful, non-threatening modern styles. The inclusion of Leon Gellert’s catalogue notes ‘The Modern Interior Decoration’ (1929) broadens our understanding of this landmark home-show, to include the more radical input of New Zealander Frank Weitzel, architect Henry Pryor (a friend of the Griffins) and the Japanese scholar Professor Arthur Sadler, whose austere Japanese living room, ‘stripped down to straw tatami mats and wooden shelves housing painted scrolls’ offered Sydneysiders a far more culturally radical vision of modernism as a total environment with an international world-view.

Also interesting is Modernism and Australia’s reminder that modernist currency traded within an already secure regional culture. This volume also has origins in an earlier Bicentennial collaborative project, in which Ann Stephen was co-author: The Necessity of Australian Art: An essay about interpretation (Power Publications, 1988). This contentious essay argued for Australia’s distinctively regional modernity, challenging the then intellectually exhausted, yet still dominant modernist histories of Australian art. The Necessity of Australian Art analysed artworks within a social framework of circulation, reception and significance, within an inclusive field of regional visual culture. Australian modernism was not simply a belated import from Europe, as pioneering Australian art historians like Bernard Smith had maintained, but had emerged within a identifiable peripheral capitalist formation, on the back of an established regionalist tradition.

Modernism and Australia takes the earlier thesis a step further. Its documents challenge longstanding ‘inversion theories’ of modern Australian art, whereby European modernism inexorably filters through to peripheral regions like Australia in a neat though belated fashion. The ‘suitcase’ model of modern art was highlighted through oft-quoted anecdotes like young Sydney art student Norah Simpson returning from London in 1913 with reproductions of modern masters packed in her travelling trunk. The inversion theory was itself inverted in Humphrey McQueen’s The Black Swan of Trespass (1979). McQueen’s nationalist art history down-played the metropolitan centres completely in favour of home-grown modernist Margaret Preston. Flipping the dependency model is not the same as dismantling it, however, and McQueen’s ‘there versus here’ ruling ultimately hindered his analysis of Preston’s complex Jindyworobak chauvinism and pragmatic internationalism. Nonetheless, identifying and valuing local elements in Australian modernism was an important move that the editors of Modernism and Australia would acknowledge. The ethical blinkers that have accompanied the dependency model had also been challenged from within modernist frameworks by scrupulous curators like Tony Tuckson and Daniel Thomas, whose ground-breaking researches into Aboriginal artists and women modernists respectively opened institutional eyes to the creative and intellectual strength of artists such as David Malangi, Grace Crowley and Grace Cossington Smith. It is fitting that Modernism and Australia opens with a personal, reflective ‘Preface’ by Thomas.

The volume additionally addresses the sluggish institutional responses to new, progressive ideas. Modernism and Australia documents a broad dragging of governmental feet; however there seemed to be greater resistance in the fields of the fine arts than in design and architecture, with political heavyweights like long-time Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies standing jowl by jowl alongside his equally influential anti-modernist mates who dominated museum trusteeships and other cultural employers around the country. Governments clearly felt more comfortable supporting progressive town planning and housing developments than modern artworks.

This may help explain the preponderance of excerpts emphasising the experience and expression of modernity, rather than purely industrial or technological viewpoints. We understand the new production processes as they impact upon urban populations, in the fields of improved sanitation, economic and health benefits, even as environments for fostering a democratic citizenry. The modern Australian art print, frock, apartment, school and workplace are all spaces allowing the free play of colour, light, air, simplicity and comfort. Overall, this volume conveys the twentieth century as a period of incessant social and cultural reconstruction, pre, post, and during the world wars and regional conflicts that carved up the century. We also sense that many progressive architects were getting plum commissions for cheap housing estates, schools and libraries, hospitals and factories. A growing preoccupation with urban planning and the ‘socialised imagination’ of governmental bodies like the Victorian Electricity Commission (Yallorn, Eildon, Kiewa valley) and the Victorian Housing Commission (Fisherman’s Bend, Preston), gear up to the notorious high rise developments that still shade Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs.

While this volume airs a range of social and political opinion, we nonetheless sense an over-arching, collective and resolutely Australian effort to modernise. The collection evidences much concerted, active thinking through of the implications of regional and international experiments. It is interesting to note how so many Australian artists, writers, educationalists, architects and designers used the first person plural to claim a modern, regional identity that was moving in tandem with international currents. ‘Just look at what the Swedes are doing in town planning’; ‘Consider the clean austerity of the German and Dutch domestic furniture illustrated below’; ‘Our recent travels outside London/Cologne/Chicago brought us face to face with innovative house design/public sculpture/painting not unlike those at Fisherman’s Bend/Geelong/Sydney’s chic arcades’.

If there is anything that unites the progressive voices in this large collection, therefore, it is a cheerfully resolute, polemical, exhortative and explanatory tone common to many of the documents. This tone is quite different from those lonely, visionary voices that echo through anthologies of metropolitan modernism. There are precious little individualistic, experimental voices from the wilder shores of avant-gardism, like those heard from Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc or Alexander Rodchenko. If Australian moderns had a shared trait, it was a sense that our regional past, present and future were a collective effort.

notes: 

Editors: Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara and Philip Goad  
The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006 pp.1039, RRP: $49.95 AUD

1. Bernard Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition, Chatto & Windus, Melbourne, 1945.