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