A new world for the making
Julie Ewington on Making Modernism at Heide Museum of Modern Art
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