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Modern art and Australia

Roland Wakelin  | The Bridge under construction 1928

Roland Wakelin, New Zealand/Australia 1887-1971 | The Bridge under construction 1928 | Oil on composition board | Purchased 1994. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant. Celebrating the Queensland Art Gallery's Centenary 1895-1995 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Roland Wakelin Estate

Grace Cossington Smith | Church interior c.1941-42

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 | Church interior c.1941-42 (inscr. 1937) | Oil with pencil on pulpboard | Purchased 2001 with funds raised through The Grace Cossington Smith Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Estate of the artist

Eric Wilson  | Stove theme 1942

Eric Wilson, Australia 1911-1946 | Stove theme 1942 | Oil, paper, sand and collage on canvas | Gift of the Godfrey Rivers Trust through Miss Daphne Mayo 1948 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Currently on display | Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries | Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)

In the first half of the twentieth century, Australian society underwent rapid modernisation, and the works on display in this gallery show how Australian artists responded to this experience. Like expatriates in previous decades, artists in Sydney and Melbourne often looked to Europe for inspiration. Their eclectic and often cautious art became increasingly influenced by European modernist culture, at first through reproductions in books and magazines and later through frequent travel abroad.

Several competing forms of Modernism developed in Australia. In the 1920s and 1930s, Sydney artists were closer to the urbane Modernism of European design and decor, as exemplified by the publications Art in Australia and The Home. By contrast, in the 1940s and 1950s, Melbourne artists – especially those supported by patrons John and Sunday Reed – became famous for a raw expressionism that drew its passion from the turbulent war years, and later from the struggle to develop an authentically Australian cultural vision. Works from both groups are displayed in this and the adjoining gallery.

However manifested, Modernism was only one narrative in Australian art during this period. Accordingly, Modernism was not officially sanctioned, nor was it widely popular. Modernist artists struggled for recognition where more traditional conceptions of artistic practice continued to flourish, especially landscape painting and portraiture. This display exemplifies this climate of contention, and indicates the importance of traditional, as well as innovative, artistic idioms in Australia at this time.

Collection Highlights 

Roland Wakelin The Bridge under construction 1928

Roland Wakelin is one of the founders of Australian Modernism, together with Roy de Maistre, Grace Cossington Smith, Kenneth McQueen and Margaret Preston. In the same year that The Bridge under construction was painted, Wakelin published an article on Cézanne and modern painting which was among the first attempts to explain Modernism in Australia. Wakelin and the younger generation of painters in the 1920s considered paintings as ‘objects’ in themselves – flat surfaces on which colour, tone and line are manipulated to produce an image, independent of reality. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was a popular subject at the time because it symbolised everything ‘modern’ in Australia.

For Kids
This picture shows the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge — have you heard of this famous bridge? Brisbane has its own big bridge from the same time — do you know its name? At this time, artists liked to depict Sydney Harbour Bridge in their paintings, as it was a very big project employing hundreds of people and a sign of progress when a lot of Australians were out of work — it was the time of the ‘Great Depression’. But in this picture no one is working on the bridge. Maybe it was the weekend and they are all at the beach. Can you count how many people are in the picture?  

Grace Cossington Smith Church interior c.1941-42 (inscr. 1937)

Church interior depicts Cossington Smith’s family place of worship, St James’s Anglican Church in Turramurra, Sydney. The painting alludes to the impact of the Second World War on the home front by the absence of men of enlistment age in the congregation. Church interior exhibits the pure, singing quality of her finest paintings and the spirituality she found in the world around her. She wrote:

All form – landscape, interiors, still life, flowers, animals, people – have [sic] an inarticulate grace and beauty; painting to me is expressing this form in colour, colour vibrant with light – but containing this other, silent quality which is unconscious, and belongs to all things created. 

For Kids
This painting of a church service was done during the Second World War. If you look closely you will notice that there are very few men in the church — why do you think this could be? The bright colours in this painting are just like the stained glass windows you see in many churches today but there might be a sad message from the past in the painting. At the back of the picture are a group of boys all dressed in white robes — what do you think they are doing? 

Eric Wilson Stove theme 1942

Eric Wilson’s work was transformed by exposure to Cubism during studies in London from 1937 to 1939 – Stove theme in particular is a classic cubist composition employing fractured geometry and mixed materials. Here Wilson has depicted a static object that is nevertheless full of dynamism, the composition capturing the object’s essential function as a source of energy. Wilson described this work as an investigation of ‘shapes, lines, colours, textures and rhythm – a lyricism transposed in terms of the machine’s rigid discipline, a plastic symphony'.  

For Kids
This painting is in a style from nearly 100 years ago called Cubism. Can you see why it was called that? Cubism was about breaking down the shape of objects as we see them from many different angles and painting all these views on the flat surface of the canvas. This picture is of a stove, so you can see the various parts of the stove. Look for the legs of the stove and the fire burning inside. Can you see the cat keeping warm in front of the stove? 

Of Interest 

The Queensland Art Gallery houses a significant collection of Australian paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, and works on paper. Find more information on these selected Collection highlights | Indigenous Australian Art | Queensland Heritage | Australian Art to 1975 

Search the Queensland Art Gallery's Collection online for works by Weaver Hawkins, Eric Wilson, Roland Wakelin, Grace Cossington Smith, Alison Rehfisch, Godfrey Miller, Rah Fizelle, Margaret Preston, Ralph Balson, Elioth Gruner, Dorrit Black and Ethel Spowers | Collection Search