Modernism & Australia: documents on art, design and architecture 1917-1967

28 Jun

Janine Burke February 23, 2007 www.smh.com.au

A new anthology charts the 20th century’s revolution in artistic belief.

Caricature or work of art? ... William Dobell's 1943 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Joshua Smith.

Caricature or work of art? … William Dobell’s 1943 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Joshua Smith.

The battle for modernism was crucial to Australian art’s maturity. It took place, in differing art forms and with different combatants, in the capital cities, particularly from 1914 to 1948.

In Melbourne, the skirmishes were vicious and vociferous as cultural heavyweights George Bell, Adrian Lawlor, Albert Tucker and Noel Counihan debated modernism in tones of high moral purpose.

Sydney handled the issue with more panache. Its greater sophistication in the area of design and its abundance of influential women artists such as Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Grace Crowley, who promoted and incorporated modernist principles in their work, meant that modernism was received in a less hostile environment. In Adelaide, surrealism was a key ingredient in the debate.

This book has an ambitious scope that includes sections on visual arts, design and architecture, as well as some documents covering film, literature and music. Key texts include Tucker’s “Art, Myth and Society” and A.A. Phillips’s “The Cultural Cringe”, plus sections from Adrian Lawlor’s Arquebus and Lionel Lindsay’s Addled Art. Though these texts have been quoted in many publications over the years, they have not been collected in one anthology.

But the omissions deserve attention, as they blur the historical accuracy of the modernist dialogue. Why is John Reed, co-editor of the arts journal Angry Penguins and one of the most insistent voices espousing modernism in the 1940s, represented during that period by one polite letter? Max Harris, the provocative surrealist poet and writer, and Adelaide co-editor of Angry Penguins, is not represented at all.

The battle for modernism was public and painful, characterised by hoaxes and court cases. James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who disdained Harris’s fantastic verse, concocted the Ern Malley poems that conned and humiliated Angry Penguins’ editors. Later, Harris faced trial for obscenity on an unrelated matter but in a climate fuelled by the Malley controversy.

When William Dobell won the 1943 Archibald Prize for his portrait of Joshua Smith, he was taken to court on the grounds it was a caricature. Again, the moderns faced the conservatives. By excluding Harris’s writings, plus documents detailing the Ern Malley hoax and the Dobell trial, the editors denude the modernist debate of some its central, and most dramatic, moments.

Modernism & Australia provides material that will be useful to student and scholar alike. It includes Thea Proctor’s review “Modern Art in Sydney”, published in Art in Australia in 1938, in which she not only canvases the talents of some of the best contemporary artists, such as Grace Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelin and Dorrit Black, but also reveals the gracious and generous manner that made her such an impressive tastemaker.

Also present is a 1944 essay by Robin Boyd in which he wrote: “Is this your city? No, because your city’s out of date.” It is the first known article on urban design by Boyd, then an architecture student. His robust and assured polemic displays, at the tender age of 25, one of the brightest minds Australian architecture has produced. Boyd opined that while the problems of planning affect every aspect of our lives, we are so conditioned to urban “inefficiency and confusion” that we fail to formulate solutions, making “Man a cringing Dr Frankenstein in the grip of his own monster”.

Oddly, the editors are reluctant to define modernism. In the Introduction, the terms “modern art”, “the modern” and “modernism” are used interchangeably, though they are separated by fine but important historical distinctions. This undermines the fundamental scope of their project.

For example, the editors are prepared to identify the resistance to modernism’s “seemingly brutal attack on both form and particularly naturalistic representation” but they obscure the matter when they write that “(m)odernist practices focused avidly upon an often uncomfortable scrutiny of rep-resentation and upon formal considerations divorced from imitative constraints”.

Modernism is more than a vague, generic term such as “modern art”. Modernism means formalism. In any art practice, be it painting, music or poetry, modernism deals with structure, privileging form over content and style over subject matter. In painting, its chief late 19th- and early 20th-century protagonists include Manet, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. Modernism liberated how reality was treated. The illusion of three-dimensional pictorial space was abandoned and form was fractured. The debate about modernism signified a war about culture.

In the 1940s, communist artists such as Counihan, Harry de Hartog and Vic O’Connor were opposed to modernism because it undermined the socialist message they believed art should convey. But modernism’s strategies for acceptance did not always require dissent. For example, Frederick Ward’s sleek timber furniture met with instant acceptance and, in the mid-’30s, he created the UNIT line for Myer, Melbourne’s biggest department store.

Frank Hinder’s superb illustrations for magazines such as The Home show how elegantly and cunningly modernism was disseminated in Sydney. This is the kind of diversity Modernism & Australia seeks but does not always present.

Janine Burke is the author of Australian Gothic: a life of Albert Tucker.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: