ldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World was published in 1932 in the depth of the Depression. It was banned almost at once in Australia — Ireland was the only other country to suppress its publication — apparently because it was thought to promote irreligion and sexual promiscuity. It was released from the ban only in 1937.
Huxley’s novel imagines a version of England set 500 years in the future, when society will be organised in a ruthlessly functional way, ostensibly in the interests of efficiency and public wellbeing. Archaic differences of social class, based on the accident of birth, have been long abolished and replaced with a scientific breeding program. Humans are raised in five categories of ability and intelligence, so Alphas possess the intelligence and initiative to be leaders, while Betas are suited to middle management, Gammas merely carry out orders in an office, and so on.
Huxley did not make up the words of his famous title: they are, as readers no doubt know, an ironic borrowing from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where they already bore a charge of irony. For they are spoken by Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, who has never seen a man apart from her aged magician father, Ariel, Caliban and then Ferdinand: “Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!” (V.1.205-06). Prospero replies dryly, “’tis new to thee …”
Both the grim vision of future dystopia and the original reference to a new world of beauty and human possibility are relevant to the use of these words as the title of an exhibition devoted to the art of the 1930s in Australia, even if the specific inspiration for this borrowing is a photomontage by Max Dupain, which itself alludes to Huxley’s book. Brave New World, indeed, takes the viewer on a journey from delight in a new vision of humanity to the nightmare of the Depression
The exhibition is effectively designed, setting works in spaces intimate enough to ap- preciate them, and clustering items of different natures or dealing with specific themes so it is not dissonant, for example, to put travel posters and other commercial material together with paintings and sculptures.
The inclusion of these materials, as well as the work of less familiar artists of the time, is part of a broader approach, opening our field of vision to the diverse social and cultural concerns of the time. The result is refreshing and makes us realise how often our view of the art of this period can be confined to a handful of relatively tame modernist painters and to their connection to the worlds of modern design and interior decoration.
Here, Grace Cossington Smith is prominent with what is probably her most memorable image, The Bridge in-curve (1930), but the theme of the new Sydney Harbour Bridge as a symbolic project and an affirmation of confidence that Australia would come through the Depression and prosper again is supported by photographs and a poster in which the great