A new world for the mak­ing

Julie Ewing­ton on Mak­ing Mod­ernism at Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art

The Monthly (Australia) - - ARTS & LETTER -

When you think about it, where else would you look for mod­ernism in Australia but the sub­urbs? Where the bi­tu­men meets the bush? Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, on a slop­ing hill in the sub­ur­ban sprawl north-east of Mel­bourne, has nur­tured Australia’s ten­u­ous grasp on mod­ernist art since John and Sun­day Reid set­tled there in 1934. A cra­dle for artis­tic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion set in a gar­den, and only 20 min­utes along a free­way from the CBD, Heide is one of Australia’s liveli­est art mu­se­ums.

Its am­bi­tions are larger than its mod­est size. This year’s sum­mer ex­hi­bi­tion, O’Keef fe, Pre­ston, Coss­ing­ton Smith: Mak­ing Mod­ernism, is a suc­cinct state­ment in only 90 works about the global reach of mod­ernism in the early 20th cen­tury, and the artis­tic ex­per­i­ments found in many lo­ca­tions – in this case New Mex­ico and Syd­ney’s sub­urbs – where artists strug­gled to ar­tic­u­late the pro­found chal­lenges of the new cen­tury. Mak­ing Mod­ernism ex­plores that ur­gent mo­ment through 30-work port­fo­lios that en­cap­su­late the achieve­ments of three artists: the Amer­i­can Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe (1887–1986), and the hero­ines of Aus­tralian mod­ernism Mar­garet Pre­ston (1875–1963) and Grace Coss­ing­ton Smith (1892–1984). It’s won­der­ful to see a good num­ber of works by O’Ke­effe, but equally re­ward­ing to re­visit Pre­ston and Coss­ing­ton Smith. It’s been a decade since they were seen in any depth, in the great ret­ro­spec­tives of 2004–06.

Mak­ing Mod­ernism is a bold propo­si­tion. These three takes on mod­ernist art are em­phat­i­cally dif­fer­ent: O’Ke­effe’s will to sim­plify, to ex­tract and ab­stract; Pre­ston’s en­er­getic hy­brid­ity in search of a na­tional mod­ern id­iom, and her recog­ni­tion of the cen­tral­ity of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture; Coss­ing­ton Smith’s ec­static views of ev­ery­day life. The large­ness of each woman’s dis­tinct vi­sion is strik­ing; each has ded­i­cated rooms, so there are no glib jux­ta­po­si­tions. What emerges, in­stead, is a strong sense of the quid­dity of each body of work: look at Ram’s Head, Blue Morn­ing Glory (1938) for O’Ke­effe’s sin­u­ous, airy ab­strac­tion, at The Mon­stera de­li­ciosa (1934) to get a sense of Pre­ston’s tough-minded com­po­si­tional method, or at Sea Wave (1931), one of Coss­ing­ton Smith’s sen­sual land­scapes. As Amer­i­can cu­ra­tor Cody Hart­ley writes in the cat­a­logue, each woman, in her ir­re­duc­ible in­di­vid­u­al­ity, “found new ways to com­mu­ni­cate, new things to say, and new ways to make art sig­nif­i­cant to their na­tional cul­tures”. Here mod­ernism is seen not as a style but as an at­ti­tude to life and lived lo­ca­tion.

If a sharp sense of lo­ca­tion was cru­cial to mod­ernist art, land­scape was the genre that made mod­ern life na­tional. Aus­tralian cu­ra­tor Denise Mim­moc­chi points out that these

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