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Modernist Experiments

Fat man

Daphne Mayo | Australia 1895–1982 | Fat man 1940 | Bronze, wooden base | Purchased 1981. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Surf Lifesaving Foundation and the Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust

Daphne Mayo: Let There Be Sculpture | 4 November 2011 − 15 January 2012 | QAG | Free admission

In late 1937, when Daphne Mayo visited Europe and North America to observe recent developments in art, she was particularly impressed by the serenely classical work of the French sculptors Aristide Maillol (1861−1944) and Charles Despiau (1874−1946), and by the animal sculpture of François Pompon (1855−1933) and his American counterpart John B Flannagan (1895−1942). She also applauded the ‘tremendous wealth’ of materials being used in sculpture at this time.

On her return in 1940, Mayo moved to Sydney in search of a more stimulating artistic environment – in her words, to ‘take stock, expand and experiment’ – and to undertake a commission for bronze doors for the Public Library of New South Wales. Once her big job was over, she was free to apply the inspiration of her recent travels and, for the first time in her career, to work without the constraints of commissions.

She undertook a series of smaller works produced in multiples to reduce costs and intended for domestic rather than public settings. Some were replicated in several media, exploring various textures, colours and surface decoration. Their streamlined simplification, carried to the brink of abstraction in Fat man, made them some of Sydney’s most avant-garde sculptures of the time. They were also light-heartedly original witty observations of life in wartime Sydney.

From 1941, these modernist works were shown in the exhibitions of the Society of Artists, of which Mayo was a member. They had been all but forgotten until they were rediscovered in 1981 in her Sydney studio, which had been unused for many years.