Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Mak­ing Modernism: O’Ke­effe, Pre­ston, Coss­ing­ton Smith Heide Mu­seum, un­til Fe­bru­ary 19

Ati­tle such as Mak­ing Modernism in­evitably begs a great many ques­tions. Of course the lan­guage of ti­tles is not re­ally meant to stand up to scru­tiny: it be­longs to the cat­e­gory of mar­ket­ing, brands and slo­gans, and ad­dresses it­self to a pub­lic that is sup­posed to re­spond to words not as part of a sus­tained dis­course but as iso­lated but­tons, pushed to elicit pre­set as­so­ci­a­tions.

If we are of a more an­a­lyt­i­cal turn of mind, though, we can­not help won­der­ing what these words could mean if they ac­tu­ally meant some­thing. What was modernism and who did make it? We could quote Baudelaire and his idea of the hero­ism of mod­ern life, from as early as 1846. And he al­ready em­bod­ies the dou­ble face of modernism, which en­tails both a pos­i­tive and a neg­a­tive en­gage­ment with the world.

Modernism in art is usu­ally thought of as start­ing with the im­pres­sion­ists and their suc­ces­sors, but its most acute phase was in the years just be­fore World War I, when an over­whelm­ing surge of cul­tural malaise looks in hind­sight like an an­tic­i­pa­tion of the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary catas­tro­phes to come: these were the years of fau­vism, ex­pres­sion­ism, cu­bism, fu­tur­ism, pit­tura metafisica and ab­strac­tion, to name only the prin­ci­pal move­ments.

None of the three women in the present show con­trib­uted to cre­at­ing these move­ments, nor does their work have the sub­stance or the po­ten­tial for dis­tur­bance of styles that raised fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about our ha­bit­ual ways of see­ing the world, about the smug­ness of a ma­te­ri­al­is­tic cul­ture bask­ing in an util­i­tar­ian con­cep­tion of progress al­ready ques­tioned by Baudelaire, and about the in­sti­tu­tions of art.

By com­par­i­son with the art of this pe­riod — flawed and lim­ited as some of it was — Mar­garet Pre­ston (1875-1963) and Grace Coss­ing­ton Smith (1892-1984) are mi­nor artists. The scope of Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe (1887-1986) was some­what greater and her for­mal devel­op­ment was bolder, but in the end she re­treated into the care­fully The Bridge in build­ing Morn­ing Glory cul­ti­vated role of the desert recluse, paint­ing in a niche style whose lim­i­ta­tions are re­vealed as soon as she goes be­yond cer­tain mo­tifs.

Pre­ston is in some re­spects the most imag­i­na­tively lim­ited of the three, al­though she was a de­ter­mined and en­er­getic worker and pub­li­cist. She was much more suc­cess­ful than Coss­ing­ton Smith in cre­at­ing a re­li­able prod­uct, and her dec­o­ra­tive paint­ings and prints of na­tive flow­ers have al­ways been ap­peal­ing and suc­cess­ful.

The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes a se­ries of Pre­ston’s still lifes, all of which dis­play much the same sen­si­bil­ity: hor­i­zon­tals and ver­ti­cals are coun­ter­poised with the round forms of cups and teapots; a slight flat­ten­ing of perspective gives a modernist flavour, and ev­ery bit of the com­po­si­tion is densely filled with pat­tern. The ef­fect is vis­ually an­i­mated, but there is never a hint of the mys­te­ri­ous life and char­ac­ter of ob­jects that has al­ways made the great­est still life, fromClaesz to Chardin or Gior­gio Mo­randi.

Even the more min­i­mal tray of cups, ti­tled Im­ple­ment blue (1927), is a self-con­sciously modernist im­age, akin to the for­mat of an ad­ver­tis­ing de­sign. It is a strik­ing piece of styling, but there is lit­tle in­ter­est in the ob­jects them­selves, nor can there be since they are mass-pro­duced. The work is more a cel­e­bra­tion of in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing than any­thing else.

In her later work, the group of paint­ings of the Mon­stera de­li­ciosa are strik­ing in their com­bi­na­tion of vul­val and phal­lic forms. Surely Pre­ston’s at­trac­tion to these forms must have been un­con­scious, but they in­ci­den­tally draw our at­ten­tion to the ab­sence of sen­sual or even sen­su­ous feel­ing in her paint­ing.

One of Pre­ston’s favourite ideas in later years was that we should bor­row de­sign in­spi­ra­tion from the colours and shapes of the Abo­rig­ines — whether this was a recog­ni­tion of the aes­thetic value of their work or sim­ply ex­ploita­tion has been ar­gued about for years — and some of her most suc­cess­ful works are the late land­scapes us­ing a quasi-Abo­rig­i­nal pal­ette and sim­pli­fied forms, sev­eral based on aerial views. None­the­less, these re­main ex­er­cises in de­sign rather than se­ri­ous land­scape paint­ings.

Coss­ing­ton Smith is in some re­spects a more in­ter­est­ing, or at least a more ap­peal­ing, artist, but her pro­duc­tion is strik­ingly un­even. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes an en­gag­ing self-por­trait done around the age of 24, which is fol­lowed by one of her best pic­tures, and the one fre­quently cited as the first post-im­pres­sion­ist or even the first modernist work pro­duced in Aus­tralia: The Sock knit­ter, a por­trait of her sis­ter knit­ting socks for sol­diers fight­ing in France. The frontal pose of the fig­ure, the sim­ple colours, and the mis­align­ment of the cush­ions on the back of the sofa, em­pha­sis­ing the play of hor­i­zon­tals and ver­ti­cals, all con­trib­ute to our sense of the pic­ture as si­mul­ta­ne­ously a quiet and in­ti­mate por­trait and a com­po­si­tion on a flat sur­face. We might ex­pect there to be more works in the same vein, but there seem not to be.

The artist spent the next decade or so study­ing with Dat­tilo-Rubbo, who is said to have taught her the tech­niques of Seu­rat, van Gogh and oth­ers, which is ques­tion­able, since tech­nique is in­sep­a­ra­ble from pur­pose and in­spi­ra­tion, and clearly Coss­ing­ton Smith shared the

(1929) by Grace Coss­ing­ton Smith, right; Ram’s Head, Blue (1938) by Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, above

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