- Making Sydney Modern
“See the art that made Sydney modern” is the televised tagline of the mid-year, winter exhibition at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Co-curators Deborah Edwards, Senior Curator of Australian Art, and Denise Mimmocchi structured their show, Sydney Moderns: Art for a New World, in a rough chronological sequence of themed displays. Each theme stresses a facet to their narrative about art’s place in modernizing Sydney throughout the 1915–45 period. On display are over 200 objects that tell of a time when Australian art was venturing into the New World of the early twentieth century.
A silhouette of the Sydney Harbour Bridge announces the entry to the exhibition. Constructed between 1923 and 1932, this bridge was the greatest feat of interwar industry undertaken in Australia. To Australians, it signified a new post-war era of promise and possibility. It became the foremost symbol of the nation’s modern future.
Portrayals of Sydney and its bridge at the start of the exhibition herald that modernity is to become the subject of artists living in the light-filled harbor city. They depict the yet-unfinished bridge dominating the skyline, with its thrusting arms nearly joining to connect the city’s north and south sides for the first time. In The Bridge (1930), for example, Dorrit Black highlights this rising focus in dynamic contrast to the reposeful, [End Page 547] seemingly non-modernized landscape below. If Black’s intention was to portray the bridge as an instrument of modernity that was about to change Sydney forever, Grace Cossington Smith conveys the thrill of watching the bridge soar above the harbor. Its rising arms, gripping the attention of Sydneysiders, represented Sydney coming into being as a twentieth-century metropolis.
Cossington Smith’s The Bridge in Curve (1930) emits energy and dynamism. In this piece, the bridge dwarves two barely noticeable figures standing under its railway line. Sydneysiders, who were delighted by the rapid urbanization that was then sweeping through their city, viewed the bridge as a thing of beauty. However, with much of old, historic Sydney cleared to make way for the new structure and highways leading to it, others worried about what was also being lost in the transition from the past to the faster pace of twentieth-century life. Cossington Smith encapsulates the ambivalence that marks the interwar years, as well as the artists working in Sydney during that time.
“Sydney moderns” is a phrase to describe local artists who applied new international theories of color and composition to the representation of their changing environment. We are told by this exhibition that they developed new visual languages, driven by color and bold design, to express life in a new world.1
Color painting and theory was central to Sydney art at the turn of the twentieth century. The exhibition reflects that in its first themed section, titled “Colour, light and colour-music.” Neapolitan-trained Antonio Dattilo Rubbo was one influential artist who taught classes in experimenting with color, light and form. His approach, typified by fragmented brushstrokes in high-key color, was basically academic, but he was receptive to new ideas. His students sustained a naturalistic style, but they were encouraged to use color as a constructive element. We are told they were goaded to learn from French post-impressionists who were working elsewhere, such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Vuillard and Seurat, and that Rubbo led his students to make paintings of simplified form, flattened space and intense color.2 This method is exemplified in Roland Wakelin’s Hillside Houses, Berry’s Bay (1919). [End Page 548]