Australian Art Essay

Modern Art movement in Australia

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Australian Art

Art has always had a fundamental impact on the way people live, think, and feel about themselves. From the outset, art in Australia took part in shaping and sharing the cultural identity. The modern movement of the twentieth century in Melbourne and Sydney produced a small, supportive group that strived to advance their theories.

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Nolan and Russell Drysdale vividly depicted the most desperate images of the Australian life of that period. A high proportion of female artists was an extremely significant phenomenon in a period between the wars. They took over leadership in the modern movement in Australia. It was probably possible due to the increased independence and status of Australian women (Sayers 2001). The majority of females became influential teachers of the new tendencies in modernism. This paper mainly focuses on the Modern Art movement in Australia. It explores the life and works of the most famous innovators such as Grace Cossington Smith and Grace Crowley and discovers the female contributions to the development of Modernism in the Australian art of the twentieth century.

Modernism in Australia

The beginning of the twentieth century represented an expatriate era in Australian art. For instance, such artists as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton found their place in the London’s Royal Academy of Arts. However, the majority of these expatriate painters returned to Australia after the First World War. Consequently, the European avant-garde inspired the Australian Modernist movement. The most significant point of a new art direction was the rejection of the traditional representation of the world. The innovators followed the new European trends and started to experiment with various styles and technological innovations.

Thus, the forms and styles went beyond the content and subject matter of their paintings. The evolution of Modernism proceeded also due to advances in technology and science. However, the language of the new art tendencies was unfamiliar to the society. As a result, the ordinary Australian public met innovations with strong resistance. In spite of such coolness, the modernist movement had no boundaries and promoted its free expansion in the Australian culture. For instance, in the 1920s, several artists organized the Sydney Contemporary Group. A little later, their followers started to organize themselves in Melbourne and established the Contemporary Art Society (Roberts 2009). These organizations included a predominant number of modernist women artists.

Modern Art and Australian Women

It is important to note that in the inter-war period, Modernism existed mostly outside official cultural institutions in Australia. Women turned out to be a crucial force of its spread. According to Bernard Smith (1962), “Indeed, the contribution of women to post-impressionism in Australia appears to have been corporately greater than that of men” (p. 198). The reason for such influence was a rising of the feminist movements in Australia and the formation of the United Association of Women in Sydney. The women’s movements began in the late 1880 and 1890s and reached their peak in1906 and 1914 (Peers 2011). Thus, when in the 1920s the Australian art felt the first signs of atrophy and got the landscape clich? the female artists managed to change this tendency.


Thus, Norah Simpson, Grace Cossington, Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, and Grace Crowley injected vitality and a modern approach to the style of their paintings. These women focused on new subjects and ideas and became the pioneers of Modernism in Australia. Many of these modern females traveled, studied, and lived in Europe. Mostly, all of them were financially independent and did not try to comfort the requirements of the male art-buying public. Some even sacrificed everything for the sake of art and decided to stay unmarried and childless. Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor were the key figures of the modern scene in Sydney. (Gaze 1997). The harbor bridge by Grace Cossington Smith and Grace Crowley brought a new inspiration in Australian art (Nunn et. al. 2003).

However, even such huge female contributions had bitter enemies. For instance, James Stuart MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay represented oppositional views on such an artistic evolution. They frequently expressed sexist remarks and supported anti-Modernists statements. “Today there are more women than men painters. They have more leisure, and the superficial nature of modern painting attracts their light hands: picture or hat, all is one” (Lindsay, 1942, p. 52).

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The Australian artists perceived the female artists as docile followers of whimsy and fashion. Another painter and critic James MacDonald had his own point of view about the predomination of females in the art movement. He explained that in the nineteen-century women began to outnumber men in schools of arts. However, this tendency did not have the expected effect of producing good paintings. The artist presumed that women could follow particular instructions but could not construct something by themselves. Thus, the lack of intellectual ability did not let them create masterpieces, it only enabled them to imitate great artworks. MacDonald claimed that the genius was only a male attribute. Unfortunately, both critics were not just typically envious but occupied quite high positions in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Thus, their opinions on art-related issues were dominant. The hard times for female modern painters lasted until 1943 when Mary Evatt became the first female director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Ottley 2010). It was a huge step for all women and a victory of Modernism in Australia.

Grace Cossington Smith

Grace Cossington Smith is one of the most talented Australian Modernist artists. Her works of the early 1930s revealed the light of an adventurous spirit. The Smith’s career started in 1910 when she began to attend drawing classes at the Anthony Datillo-Rubbo’s atelier in Sydney. Due to peculiar infusion and light in her works, Cossington got the name of Mrs. Van Gosh. Smith’s talent made her a brilliant colorist and her works became icons of urban images. Among the subjects of her works were a big city, Sydney Harbour Bridge, landscapes, and domestic interiors (National Gallery of Australia n.d.b). During the First World War, Grace Cossington created The Sock Knitter. The depiction of her younger sister Madge in the family house became her first work that demonstrated interest in post-impressionism. With the help of vivid colors, Smith could flatten the space and made the focal point on the face of Marge. The large parts of color, horizontal lines, and the background fabric characterized the early period of her career.

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After the drawing lessons with Rubbo, Cossington Smith further studied two years in England and Germany. When she came back home, Grace continued classes with Signor Rubbo and began to paint in a post-impressionist manner. As a professional painter, Smith got her first personal exhibition in Grosvenor Galleries in 1928 (National Gallery of Australia n.d.b). The depiction of a big city and buildings brought real success for the young artist. In particular, the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was a source of inspiration. It seemed that Cossington could capture the dynamic possibilities of the bridge. She used the Modernist’s color pallet, techniques, and sensibility to show the process of industrialization. The focus was put on the huge construction cranes and the arch that reared up to the sky. The work revealed the artist’s feelings about the geometry and architecture of the bridge with its complex structural components. One more noticeable aspect was that Grace Cossington’s paintings became more colorful since the 1930s. Having read Beatrice Irwin’s book New Science of Colour, Smith learned about the color theory (National Gallery of Australia n.d.b). Thus, images of the Harbour Bridge such as The Bridge in-Curve demonstrated Irwin’s theory of the mental and physical nature of color. Having used a radiant blue and white Grace Cossington emphasized the rhythmic elements of the composition and introduced Modernism to the Australian art.

In order to achieve this aim, she used not only the views on the industrialization process but also a simple domestic scene in a cafeteria. A good example is The Lacquer Room that Cossington created in 1936 (National Gallery of Australia n.d.b). This work is full of Modernism’s features. First of all, it depicted an American-style caf? with simplified and flattened painting. The representation of the public space where people could gather and drink coffee was quite radical and modern for that period. In this work, Grace used the repetition technique that bound this picture with the depiction of the Harbour Bridge. The repeated patterns on the floor and the juxtaposition of the vertical and horizontal lines in the caf? made a parallel to the repetitions of the bridge construction (National Gallery of Australia n.d.b). Nowadays, the curator of the National Gallery of Australia characterized Grace Cossington Smith as a “painter of light” and a talented artist who went far beyond the training (National Gallery of Australia n.d.b). Grace Cossington Smith devoted all her life to art and did not marry. However, she be regarded as a pioneer of Modernism in Australia.

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Grace Crowley

Grace Adela Williams Crowley was an innovator of geometric abstraction in Australia. She rejected marriage and chose an independent life dedicated to art. The first Crowley’s training took place during 1915-1918 at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School (Ottley 2010). At the beginning of her career, Grace Crowley remained with traditionalists. She was depicting landscapes and rural scenes in an impressionistic manner. For her first drawings, Grace used the pieces of chalk on an old square water tank. At the age of eight, Crowley answered why she had decided to become an artist. She said, “Well I don’t know whether you could put it that way. You do things because you can’t help doing them” (National Gallery of Australia n.d.a, p. 2). One of the earliest Crowley’s works was Horses pulling plow that illustrated her admiration for drawing horses, cows, and men. Other works of that period Ena and the Turkeys or Mary and the Baby had strong geometric shapes (National Gallery of Australia n.d.a, p. 2). However, the critics characterized Crowley’s works before her departure to France as average and ordinary.

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The most crucial influence on Crowley’s artistic style made a French cubist Andr? Lhote. Grace found her way and her natural talent flourished under the instruction of the professional artist in one of the most advanced art schools in Paris. She started to apply the method of simplifying forms and transformed them into geometric shapes. In the French school, Crowley learned about the dynamic symmetry and the golden section. All this information was necessary for creating pictures of numerous figures. Crowley noted about Lhote classes, “To my amazement, his teaching was only the confirmation of the WANT I had been feeling for so long without knowing exactly what the want was” (National Gallery of Australia n.d.a, p. 4). The first result of the adopted style was work Sailors and Models in 1928. Grace Crowley frequently traveled around Europe with her friends Anne Dangar and Dorrit Black. As a result, she could get more knowledge about art movements.

On her return to Australia, Crowley became one of the most experienced artists. She decided to promote cubism ideas. Thus, her work Portrait of Gwen Ridley in 1930 founded the Cubism movement in Australia. Soon she got her first personal exhibition in France. However, the public perceived her works as extraordinary and unfamiliar. In spite of this attitude, in 1932, Crowley and her fellow painter Rah Fizelle opened an art school. It became a shelter for a group of artists such as Ralph Balson and Hinder. They gathered on weekends to paint together. It was a period when Crowley became interested in abstraction. The Artist and His Model became the key work of that time. Thus, until 1940, Cowley started to paint totally abstract works. The public largely discussed the techniques that Crowley used in her paintings. The Crowley-Fizelle Art School was the only school that taught the golden section overseas and dynamic symmetry (Harding & Crammer 2009). Unfortunately, the art school existed only until 1937 (Ottley 2010). However, Crowley wrote several books where she explained the fundamental principles of her teaching and donated them to public institutions.

Grace Crowley used Cubism’s fracturing in order to uncover the inner meaning of the forms and to discover the sense that was deeper than just an appearance on the surface. According to the Sydney artist Godfrey Miller, Crowley tried, “to develop beneath surface appearance” (Heide Museum of Modern Art n.d., p. 20). One good example of Crowley’s talent is her oil painting Girl with Goats. The support of the shapes and their relations with each other showed the importance of the forms. The composition of this painting includes the proportions of the golden mean and it represents the geometric simplification. Thus, for this creation, Grace Crowley used all the knowledge that she got from Lhote. Among the first painters in Australia between 1947 and 1953, Grace Crowley painted a remarkable series of geometric abstract paintings. These works showed Crowley’s adventurous use of color. For instance, vibrant pinks, blues, and greys held together in complex arrangements of overlapping planes. The colored lines unified the entire composition. Having used the universal language of geometry and color, the abstract painting of Grace Crowley got a special musical dynamic rhythm (National Gallery of Australia n.d.a). The last Crowley’s abstract works were highly professional, sophisticated, and elegant.


Between the great wars, Australian art was under a huge impact of the European trends. The painters adopted the techniques of the leading European artists. Modernism and Cubism emerged due to the hard work of the Australian female artists such as Grace Cossington Smith and Grace Crowley. These women found inspiration in various art streams, but both managed to build successful careers. Their creations emphasized structure, color, and design. In the beginning, the public did not perceive the new art directions as they were unfamiliar to them. The world of male art strongly criticized women’s attempts to bring Modern Art movements to Australia. Nevertheless, the contribution of Grace Crowley was one of the most fundamental at that time. She brought an original artistic vision from Europe and introduced the concepts of Modernism in Australia. Smith’s style was more open and experimental in comparison to her male’ contemporaries. Her art challenged the common traditional practice and created a free path to Modernism. Grace Crowley’s fresh movements in modern art brought a revolution in society. Crowley shared her unique knowledge of the golden section and dynamic composition that she had got in Europe. Together with painter Rah Fizelle, Grace opened the most progressive art school in Sydney. She overcame the path to abstraction through her constant attention to Cubist principles. In general, the talent and inner strength of both artists helped them to cope with all obstacles on the way to success and opened a new page in Australian art history.

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