- Changing Perspectives on Modernism in Australia: Cubism and Australian Art
The appearance of this landmark exhibition and catalogue from the Heide Museum of Modern Art confirms the recent resurgence of critical and popular interest in Australia’s relationship with modernism. With few reservations, the exhibition and its accompanying monograph represent a clear and timely contribution to Australian scholarship on modernism in this country. More broadly, Cubism and Australia, in both its forms, contributes to current attempts within international modernist studies to take full account of the plurality of global manifestations of modernism, and, significantly, to rethink modernism beyond the confines of the nation state.
Scholarly interest in Australian modernists, and modernism in Australia, has been building over the past five to ten years. A series of nationally touring exhibitions have re-presented important Australian modernist artists to an appreciative public, such as the painter Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984), the subject of a major National Gallery of Australia retrospective show in 2005. Complementing this renewed focus on individual artists, and contributing towards a broader cultural perspective on modernism, came a successful exhibition from the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Modern Times (2008).1 [End Page 925]
When on tour in Melbourne, Modern Times also showed at Heide, emphasizing the latter’s growing national profile as a “destination” institution for aficionados of modernism. The bold claim of Modern Times’s accompanying publication was to be “the first book to trace how modernism transformed Australian culture through the course of the twentieth century” (Stephen, Goad, and McNamara 2008, v). Modern Times thus served as an antipodean reply to Modernism: Designing a new world 1914–1939 (2006) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which took a similarly broad view of modernism’s impact on twentieth-century visual culture.2 Cubism and Australian Art therefore followed hot on the heels of Modern Times. Its curators, Lesley Harding and Sue Cramer, presumably hoped to build on a renewed public appetite for modernism—which Modern Times successfully tapped—while carving out a curatorial space of their own.
The exhibition featured more than 200 works by 80 international and Australian artists, and included sculpture, collage, installation, and moving image-based works. This created a unique opportunity to see celebrated European and Australian works hung side by side: Amédée Ozenfant, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, and André Lhote sat alongside, or close, to Grace Crowley, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and Margaret Preston.
Evidently, the focus for Cubism and Australian Art was different from, and in some respects, narrower than, that of Modern Times. In taking cubism as their theme, Harding and Cramer deliberately focused on the visual arts and especially, though not exclusively, on the medium of painting. Cubism and Australian Art likewise staked its claim as a “groundbreaking” (Harding and Cramer 2009, ix) study, but rather than investigating modernism in terms of visual culture, or design, it examined “in depth, and for the first time, the extraordinary influence of Cubism on the art of Australia” (viii).
The conjunction in Harding and Cramer’s title is important. Their exhibition was concerned, certainly, with the artistic and cultural reception of cubism in Australia, but the curators’ approach went well beyond reception history, traditionally conceived. Cubism and Australian Art investigated the creation and dissemination of cubist ideas, methods, and styles among Australian artists, and also, the reception of cubism in the Australian art world. However, Harding and Cramer were concerned to question received art historical narratives of intellectual and cultural transfer. Therefore, they were interested in Australian artists who studied, worked, and lived in Europe during the movement’s formative years, and beyond, as well as those artists whose creative encounters with cubism took place within Australia.
The curators’ guiding questions for investigation are stated in the catalogue’s Introduction as follows...