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In his cultural history of Australian modernism, Ghost Nation, the poet and writer Laurie Duggan presents a “thick description” of the everyday contradictions that saturate the landscape of Australian visual culture. Attentive to the density of the everyday which includes “the residues of a dream-world” (Walter Benjamin’s phrase), Duggan’s portrait maps the visual landscape against the intersecting tensions that came to define Australia in this period, as enigmatic island-continent and emerging modern cosmopolitan nation.1 Here the nation’s ghostly residues are not mirages ignited by death, but the assortment of images that ghost each other: hallucinated assemblages that reveal a deeply embedded mythology of a distinct Australian natural light, increasingly transformed by a modern, industrial, and cosmopolitan sensibility.2 In describing Sydney in the interwar period as “an hallucination, an intense image,” that attracted photographers like moths “drawn to the light,” Duggan notes a shift in the representation of light by photographers in this period. Rather than a desiring to illuminate its subject, modern photography made light itself the subject. In these new images, he writes, “the photographs (and the city they ‘reveal’) are nothing but constructions of light” (Ghost Nation, 120–22).3

This article takes the representation of Sydney as a “hallucinatory place” as the starting point for an examination of the surrealist images produced by photographer Max Dupain throughout the mid-to-late 1930s. While a hallucinated sense of the city has a strong surrealist legacy—from Louis Aragon’s urban reveries to Walter Benjamin’s Parisian dreamscapes—in the surrealist-inspired work of Dupain and his erstwhile collaborators, Olive Cotton and Douglas Annand, the hallucinatory place that floods [End Page 269] their images nevertheless draws out the vernacular, everyday qualities of their home city. In what way did surrealism become an optimal language through which to redefine the importance of modern photography for a new vision of the city? And how was an experimental surrealist photography enlisted to record, as well to defamiliarization, the everyday environment of Sydney, including its startling light, so that it might be experienced, understood, and represented anew?

The existing critical work on Dupain, while acknowledging the influence of surrealism, has fallen short of a sustained critical discussion of the surrealist phase of his work or indeed how his surrealist images reflect surrealism’s increasingly anti-imperial, regional inflection.4 While Dupain’s photographic practice was eclectically modernist, the sheer volume and range of images he produced using surrealist techniques and themes, along with their conceptual sophistication, deserve closer scrutiny. Dupain’s turn to documentary photography during World War II and his subsequent repudiation of commercial photography have tended to eclipse the importance of this earlier surrealist phase. This article argues that Dupain’s surrealist images—far from merely registering a playful response to the stylistic effects of surrealist photography, as some critics have argued—produced a regional variant of surrealism that accorded with the movement’s increasingly international spread.5

In developing a homegrown surrealism, Dupain forcefully argued for an experimental modern photography that rejected the constraining idealism of pictorialism, but nonetheless permitted a subjective and poetic response to the urban environment. The photographs from this period paradoxically exoticized the familiar and vernacularized a modern vision of the city, producing a cosmopolitan frame that paid homage to Sydney’s distinctive atmosphere and culture, while also internationalizing local photography practice through the assimilation of a modernist emancipatory ideology. Dupain’s resolute determination to remain in his home city and focus on its distinctive features went against the grain of the expatriate adventures that were the norm for many Australian artists and writers at the time. By the 1930s, he had also moved on from the trend among photographers to send their work to international salons in cities such as Paris, London, and Amsterdam, preferring to place his work in local exhibitions and publications.6 Dupain nevertheless engaged with the international modern photography movement, absorbing its ideas and images, circulated in both specialist photography journals and commercial print culture.

Dupain’s cosmopolitanism thus registers the tension between a regional specificity and an intellectual and creative engagement with the transnational networks that increasingly made modern photography an intrinsic part of what Partha Mitter refers to as a “virtual cosmopolis,” referring to the broader discourse of international modernism circulating globally through print culture.7 As Mitter argues, virtual cosmopolitanism allows us to discern how the complicated flows of avant-garde ideas and images disseminated throughout global cities led to a highly flexible set of responses in local contexts. This article positions Dupain’s locally inflected surrealism within the broader internationalizing parameters and regional variations of the surrealist movement throughout the 1930s, alongside the radical reconceptualization of photography between the wars. [End Page 270] It moves beyond a conception of Dupain’s work as superficial or belated—or indeed as part of a broader configuration of modernism’s uneven developments—a framework that loses critical traction when we consider the highly volatile medium of photography, with its precipitous movement across the artistic avant-garde, technological modernity, and an emerging mass culture. As Christopher Phillips argues, photography in the interwar period was imagined as having been newly rediscovered although it was nearly a century old, and theorists and practitioners such as Man Ray and Lázló Moholy-Nagy (whom Dupain explicitly references) were no longer interested in debates about photography as a fine art but rather as a modern visual medium capable of reflecting and transforming “visual and mental habits.”8 Avant-garde photography was thus driven by “the ceaseless production of optical provocations” that ranged from the abstract to the objective, the distorted and lyrical to the realist. Dupain’s photographs and writing from this period register these new practices and debates about modern photography’s role in transforming the modern world. As well as absorbing international ideas and the practices of modern photography, Dupain’s surrealist images precipitated the broader reception of surrealism in Australia, acclimating Sydney audiences to a surrealist sensibility before the arrival of European surrealist works by Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Pablo Picasso, which were included in the blockbuster Herald Exhibition of French and European Art in 1939.9

Sydney on the Surrealist Map of the World

The emergence of a distinct surrealist sensibility in interwar Sydney photography and advertising culture was undoubtedly tied to the increasingly global flows of surrealism in this period. Surrealism’s desire to create a truly international movement occurred simultaneously with its assimilation into commercial cultural forms such as photography, advertising, fashion, and design, which assisted its global reach. While André Breton supported, indeed promoted, the movement’s expansion, he nevertheless articulated concern with what he saw as a rising “Surrealist conformism.”10 In “Situation of the Surrealist Object,” Breton’s Prague lecture from 1935, he articulates the risks posed by the movement’s global spread as the “vulgar abuses” of misappropriation by those seeking to trade on the prominent and often lucrative surrealist label (Manifestoes of Surrealism, 257). While Dalí’s commercial exploits and penchant for self-promotion were especially troubling in Breton’s view, the further expansion of the idea of “freedom,” particularly in response to the rise of totalitarian movements across Europe, meant that surrealism increasingly identified as a global movement. Breton’s travels to Mexico, Martinique, England, and the United States, as well as his support of the anticolonial movement and negritude poets, saw surrealism progressively advanced through local contexts or regional variants. By 1941, the year that Breton decamped for New York, his proclamations about surrealism’s global enterprise put Sydney firmly on the surrealist map: “Each one of us, from Paris to Sydney, from New York to the very depths of Asia, has an actual physical part in this world convulsion.”11 While Sydney was imagined as one of the new frontiers of an international surrealism, the movement [End Page 271] arrived in Sydney well before 1941, principally in photography, through the work of Dupain, and to a lesser extent in painting.12 The International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, organized with the assistance of Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, had secured the movement’s expansion into the English-speaking world, including Australia.13 The London exhibition provided an important opportunity for Australian artists in Britain to experience firsthand the art and ideas of surrealism, and news of the exhibition traveled widely.14 The Australian correspondent T. H. Cochran covered the exhibition in his column, “An Australian in London” for the journal The Home, reproducing images of the exhibition installed in the Burlington Galleries as well as reproductions of key works, including Dalí’s Retrospective Bust of a Woman Being Devoured by Ants (1933).15

The early interest in surrealism in Australia was also occasioned by the publication of Read’s books Art Now (1933) and Surrealism (1936), which were widely read and included the work of the Sydney artist Roy de Maistre (then living in London) and the New Zealand-born artist Len Lye, whose works were included in the London exhibition (Butler and Donaldson, “Surrealism and Australia,” 4–8).16 David Gascoyne’s A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) was also available in Australia from 1936, the first publication to include translations of key texts by Breton and others alongside reproductions of work by Dalí, Ernst, Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, and Man Ray.

Dupain’s surrealist work began prior to London exhibition’s full impact in Australia, although its arrival would have further fueled his interest in the movement. Dupain had already embraced New Objectivity as early as 1933, producing several images that translated Sydney’s industrial urban landscape into the lexicon of the new vision endorsed by Moholy-Nagy, whose essays and images appeared in the German annual, Das deutsche Lichtbild, a journal Dupain avidly consumed. It was his close study of the conceptual and technical achievements developed in Man Ray’s photographs, however, that triggered his turn to surrealist photography. Man Ray’s work had first begun to appear in Sydney publications as early as 1934, although it had been reproduced in high-circulation international magazines such as Vanity Fair since the early 1920s.17

Reviewing James Soby’s book on Man Ray for The Home in late 1935, Dupain declared Man Ray’s importance to modern photography to be akin to Cezanne’s transformation of modern painting.18 Praising Man Ray’s versatility of subject matter—be it “figure, still life, interiors, montage or landscape”—Dupain nevertheless finds a “complete unity of aesthetics and technique” in his work, “a great capacity to ‘select’ and ‘treat’ the most complex of subject matter so that by ingenious lighting systems it is broken down to a design of essential lines and masses” (“Man Ray,” 38–39). Dupain’s detailed discussion of the aesthetic and technical elements of Man Ray’s work in this essay reveals a striking depth of knowledge of the surrealist photographer’s method and concerns, which went some way to educating the Australian public about modern photography. The review also marks the moment when Dupain began systematically experimenting with a diverse range of surrealist techniques and themes, including montage, solarization, rayographs, as well as carefully placed symbolic objects such as [End Page 272] shells, statues, and skulls in the formal composition of his images. Dupain’s eclectic experimentation matched his increasing public profile as a modernist photographer, with an article and portfolio of photographs appearing in Art in Australia later that year. Quoted as a supporter of the “mechanistic” forms of photography over traditionally “naturalistic” approaches, Dupain illustrated his work with a quote from the British photographer and critic, G. H. Saxon Mills, which had originally appeared in the 1931 issue of the British journal, Modern Photography: “[Modern photography] is part and parcel of the terrific and thrilling panorama opening out before us to-day of clean concrete buildings and steel radio masts and wings of the airliner. But its beauty is only for those who themselves are aware of the ‘zeitgeist’—who belong consciously and proudly to their age and have not their eyes forever fixed wistfully on their past.”19 While critics agree on the important role Dupain played in spearheading modernist photography in Australia, his turn to surrealism also bridged the divide between the pictorialist photographers’ rendering of the poetic impressions of the Australian light and landscape and the New Photography movement’s embrace of the machine age, with its use of crisp lines, unusual angles, and abstract forms.20

In surrealism Dupain found at once a poetic vitalism and an attention to an everyday modernity that was to be embraced and molded rather than actively resisted. Dupain’s praise of the technical range and skill of Man Ray’s work thus presaged his growing hostility toward “naturalistic” approaches to photography, while remaining attached to lyrical expression. Beyond Man Ray’s technical skill, Dupain was captivated by the “creative courage” that enabled Man Ray to test the limits of outrage in the expression of an idea. In his “Age of Light” essay in Soby’s book, Man Ray suggested that “an automatic or subconscious energy” propels the photographer’s realization of an idea, sometimes to the point of “the ensuing violation of the medium.”21 Dupain’s photographs from this period begin to record a new kind of subjective response that draws out the manifold experiences of the city in transition: its architecture, topography, modernized forms and surfaces, and inhabitants, but also, importantly, its rhythms, desires, and moods. It is a surrealism anchored to the everyday, revealing the ontological power of photography to grasp a form of lived experience and emotional contact that becomes not a fixed form or thing, but a residue of an event or an experience, what Michael Sheringham refers to as surrealist photography’s ability to be a trace of the everyday but also an emotional and perceptual trigger that produces a certain disorientation. He writes:

May Ray quickly pioneered a range of techniques . . . that made photography a vehicle of surrealist dépaysement . . . As a result, Breton’s Le Surréalisme et la peinture refers to the “pouvoir de suggestion” (power of suggestion) of the photographic “épreuve” (print), and links this to a “valeur émotive” (emotional value) . . . By virtue of its “automatic” character the photographic image is credited with an objective and documentary status. But at an individual and collective level, it stimulates what Breton, in a 1929 essay on Dalí, called “notre pouvoir d’hallucination volontaire” (our power of voluntary hallucination).22

Alongside the experimental techniques such as solarization, montage, sandwich printing, and double exposure that produced a deliberately distorted vision, surrealist [End Page 273] photography embraced the prosaic and the everyday, filtering it through an uncanny sensibility that rendered the city as a “dream capital,” or what Pierre Mac Orlan called the “social fantastic,” that sphere of the everyday “created when deeply rooted ways of life [are] jarringly displaced by an emerging machine civilization.”23 The camera thus became the perfect instrument to create a new kind of “poetic knowledge” by capturing “moments of instantaneous, lyrical perception.” It is in these terms that Mac Orlan identifies surrealist photographers such as Man Ray as “photographer-poets”: precisely because they provide an “incomparable revelation” of the external world.24 If surrealist photography lent itself to both revelation and disorientation, Dupain cannily exploited its powers to represent a double vision of the city, an emotional revelation that is at once objective and subjective, evident and expressive.

Seaside Surrealism

In the iconic early image Pyrmont Silos (1933), a low viewpoint shot, taken diagonally, renders the solidity and grandeur of the Sydney wheat silos against a cloudless, monotone sky; here shadow, sky, and the cropped silos form contrasting tonal shapes, accentuating the abstract nature of the composition. Dated from 1933, prior to his close study of Man Ray’s work, the image is indebted to the abstract forms of the city promoted by the New Objectivity movement. Returning to photograph these industrial structures two years later in Silos Through Windscreen (1935), pure abstract form gives way to a more intimate scene of modernity (fig. 1). Taken from the inside of a car, with the steering wheel and its shadow occupying the foreground of the image, the viewer’s gaze is directed through the windscreen, which becomes a stylized picture window that draws attention to the camera lens as a self-conscious framing device. The angle and framing of the shot, together with the crisp saturation of light, produces an uncanny perspective, making the silos appear as though they are a part of the car’s interior, akin to the fragment of a brick building reflected in the car’s rearview mirror, giving the external monuments an intimate, human scale. The newly built concrete silos in Pyrmont, located on the Glebe Island wharf precinct of Sydney Harbor, were among the tallest structures in the city during this period, along with the recently completed Sydney Harbor Bridge, the largest single span bridge ever constructed and the city’s monument to modernity.25 Dupain’s fascination with these structures reveals his careful study of the New Photography’s embrace of industrial design and yet in Silos his experiments with light and perspective create striking visual illusions that temper the grandeur of the cylindrical shafts, bringing the image closer to the metaphysical urban structures in a de Chirico painting or the subtle optical distortions in surrealist photography.

In Spontaneous Composition (1935) and Beach Shadow (1935), both from the same year as Silos, industrial forms are replaced with the intimacy of the human body and the location shifts to the beachside suburb, an increasingly important locale for Dupain’s photographic experiments (figs. 23). In Beach Shadow, a low-angled perspective crops a female body wading through shallow water, while her fully intact shadow forms a solid black silhouette that introduces the familiar surrealist device of doubling and [End Page 274] shadowing. The black solidity of the shadow becomes a static mass, imparting a striking contrast to the sense of movement created by the rippling effect of light bouncing off moving water. Spontaneous Composition similarly employs strong light and shadow, highlighting the tonal contrasts between the black and white clothing of its subjects, while their cropped, folded limbs, nestled together into abstract forms, along with hands that appear detached, accentuate a surrealist close-up of body parts. Here, however, the sensuality of comingled bodies warmed by the sun overturns the typical fetishization of the fragmented body in surrealist photography. The title’s allusion to both carefree spontaneity and formal composition, however, hints at a surrealist use of disjunction to confound the ordinary with the extraordinary, reminding us of the tension between objective chance and subjective control in the creation of the surrealist photographic image. In both these works, cropping and shadowing (or doubling) takes us beyond the realm of the ordinarily visible, or at least what we might ordinarily be accustomed to seeing; by sharpening his focus on the distinctive qualities of the Sydney environment and its people, Dupain conveys the heightened sensuality of both environmental and corporeal forms.

Fig. 1. Max Dupain, Silos Through Windscreen, 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 30.3 × 37.7 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
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Fig. 1.

Max Dupain, Silos Through Windscreen, 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 30.3 × 37.7 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Dupain’s early experimentation with surrealist photographic techniques and themes occurred in the presence of the photographer Olive Cotton, who was both his studio assistant and romantic partner. It is perhaps unsurprising that a number of her photographs [End Page 275]

Fig. 2. Max Dupain, Spontaneous Composition, 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 40.3 × 39.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales.
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Fig. 2.

Max Dupain, Spontaneous Composition, 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 40.3 × 39.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Fig. 3. Max Dupain, Beach Shadow, circa 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 32 × 37 cm.
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Fig. 3.

Max Dupain, Beach Shadow, circa 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 32 × 37 cm.

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from this period share the hallucinated quality of Dupain’s beachside imagery. In Photographer’s Shadow (1935), Cotton produces a striking surrealist portrait through the uncanny doubling of photographer and subject (Cotton and Dupain) (fig. 4). Like the wry portraits of surrealist couples by Lee Miller and Man Ray, Cotton imparts a playful quality by superimposing her own shadow over Dupain’s head and chest. As Dupain’s studio assistant, Cotton struggled to produce her own work under the shadow of Dupain; the image thus overtly positions Cotton as the master photographer, overshadowing a slightly feminized Dupain, who is the subject of her gaze, implicitly reversing the gendered hierarchies in the roles of photographer and assistant, or indeed artist and subject. In a later image, Olive’s Shadow (1937), Cotton dramatizes the mercurial qualities of the Sydney shoreline, turning windblown ripples of sand into an oneiric landscape that captures the photographer’s shadow as an eerie apparition that haunts the otherwise desolate landscape (fig. 5). While the shadowy, half-obscured, figure of the photographer remains at the center of these images, perhaps alluding to Cotton’s precarious status as the photographer’s assistant, they also insist on the photographer’s central role in capturing the mesmerizing quality of the littoral environment. In the earlier work The Shell (1935), the central subject of the image is light itself (fig. 6). Depicting an extreme close-up of a seashell, out of which escapes a burst of light, Cotton’s enlarged object takes on a poetic, sculptural form. The sculptural quality resides in the enlarged vantage point of the object as well as in its apparent decontextualization, appearing before us as a biomorphic object transmitting light. The intense light that emanates from the shell’s orifice symbolizes the light that bursts through the camera’s own aperture, reminding us of Cotton’s description of her photographic practice as “drawing with light.”26 While the shell itself is symbolic of the littoral environment that constitutes the setting of so many of these images, here it also takes on a heightened presence as a vessel of light, connecting the natural world with the camera’s own mechanical light-drawing properties.

Dupain’s and Cotton’s creation of a “Seaside Surrealism” in these images insists on the seaside’s startling properties of transmutation as a familiar everyday experience for the inhabitants of the harbor city. Coining the term “Seaside Surrealism” in an essay for the British journal Architectural Review in 1936, Paul Nash drew attention to the English seaside town of Swanage as a site of “disquietude,” a terrain vague caught between land and water, between town culture and seaside nature.27 As Andrew Causey has argued, Nash’s preoccupation with a “Seaside Surrealism” emphasized the importance of transformation “and the proximity of the everyday world to that of fantasy and dream.”28 While a few of Dupain’s and Cotton’s images predate Nash’s essay, they share an interest in the inherently surreal forms offered up by the natural seaside landscape. But unlike Nash—who at times provided a deeply ambivalent lens with which to draw out the uncanny or anachronic properties of Swanage’s architectural and seaside features—Dupain’s and Cotton’s images concentrate on the intense properties of light and shadow to induce the uncanny quality of the littoral environment. The result is a different kind of disquiet, one that restores the landscape’s mythic inscrutability, reminding us of what is filtered out of everyday perception.29 In contrast [End Page 277]

Fig. 4. Olive Cotton, Photographer’s Shadow (Olive Cotton and Max Dupain), 1935, printed 1999, gelatin, silver photograph, edition 2/90, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.
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Fig. 4.

Olive Cotton, Photographer’s Shadow (Olive Cotton and Max Dupain), 1935, printed 1999, gelatin, silver photograph, edition 2/90, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Fig. 5. Olive Cotton, Olive’s Shadow, 1937, 18 × 22.5 cm, gelatin silver photograph. Courtesy of McInerney Family and Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney.
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Fig. 5.

Olive Cotton, Olive’s Shadow, 1937, 18 × 22.5 cm, gelatin silver photograph. Courtesy of McInerney Family and Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney.

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Fig. 6. Olive Cotton, The Shell, circa 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 37.6 × 30.0 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
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Fig. 6.

Olive Cotton, The Shell, circa 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 37.6 × 30.0 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

to Nash’s often alienated depiction of the external environment, Dupain and Cotton invariably capture a psychological intensity and a spatial disorientation that conveys the heightened emotional residues of both landscape and subject.

The Hallucinatory City

The hallucinated vision of Sydney developed in Dupain’s and Cotton’s images had an earlier counterpart in Christina Stead’s first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934). Set [End Page 279] in the 1920s in the seaside suburb of Fisherman’s Bay (Watson’s Bay) and other urban and suburban locales, Stead gives us a portrait of the intellectual and material world of Sydney as a modern, cosmopolitan city suffused with a distinctive oneiric quality.30 Described by Dorothy Green as “the first Australian novel to convey an impression of Sydney as a world city,” Stead’s expressionist (even at times surrealist) prose renders Sydney as a hallucinatory world, contrasting its exotic antipodean geography with its inhabitants’ intellectual and cosmopolitan thirst for new knowledge and experience.31 The opening sentences of Stead’s novel are suggestive of the role of light, both natural and artificial, in contributing to this hallucinated vision: “The hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren headland lies curled like a scorpion in a blinding sea and sky. At night, house-lamps and ships’ lanterns burn with a rousing shine, and the headlights of cars swing over Fisherman’s Bay.”32 Taking us on a journey through Sydney’s formal maritime gateway, the novel’s opening pages convey the powerful presence of the harbor in the life of the city, complete with the invocation of the southern headland as a menacing geographical specter, redolent of a disquieting surrealist anthropomorphism. The hallucinatory qualities of the city—with its intense sunlight blindingly reflected off large expanses of water and night lights flickering across the harbor and its foreshore—form the backdrop to the everyday material locations of Sydney life in Stead’s novel, from the civilizing architecture of the university, cathedral, and art gallery to the animated human life found in cosmopolitan cafes, on ferries, and in the city streets. The novel thus sets up a tension between the exotic landscape, with its towering “Norfolk Island pines” and “tropical moon,” and its spirited connection, through both maritime and intellectual adventure, to the rest of the world, where “little boys run out to name the liners . . . from Singapore, Shanghai, Nagasaki, Wellington, Hawaii, San Francisco, Brindisi, Dunkirk and London,” and where Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud form the intellectual backdrop to “a city in which cosmopolitan experience and international perspectives are taken for granted.”33 Paul Giles similarly identifies a tension between the intellectual and material forces of the novel, suggesting its “peculiar charm . . . derives from the various incompatibilities between its modernist internationalism . . . and the local paraphernalia of Australia.”34 The inescapable material presence of the city continually intrudes into the intellectual life of its characters, producing a discordant tension between abstract or intellectual ideas and the intense, often over-powering, atmosphere of everyday experience, which, for Giles, invokes the surrealist technique of “incongruent adjacency” (Antipodean America, 347). While the novel perhaps shares more with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) or even Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) than with the experimental Parisian novels of Breton and Aragon, Stead nevertheless captures the distinctive atmosphere of the city through a psychological intensity suffused with a mesmerizing quality. For Peter Kirkpatrick, Stead’s evocation of Sydney’s hallucinatory qualities is also informed by “the constant peripatetic movements” of its characters as they navigate on foot the breadth of the city, from the bohemian and consumer circles of the city center to the wild urban fringes of shoreline and bush.35 While Kirkpatrick sees the novel’s fascination with walking as symptomatic of its characters’ resolute determination to appropriate the external environment, the [End Page 280] sense of place that Stead evokes records the tension between the novel’s poetic and at times surrealist vision, and its resolute determination to record “the ordinary life of the city” (“Walking Through,” 65).

Like Stead’s, Dupain’s double vision turns on the competing claims of the poetic and the objective, an ambitious cosmopolitanism and a vernacular sense of the vivid landscape. The propensity to anthropomorphize the city’s striking geographical presence, together with a psychologizing of its complex, modernizing personality, featured in numerous accounts of Sydney throughout the 1930s. In an article in The Home in 1937, Sydney is described as “well groomed and . . . beautifully gowned . . . with the most glorious girdle [Sydney harbor] any Queen City could wear,” although also chastised for its indolence, likened to a spoiled and indulged child. Part of a special issue on Australian capital cities, the author concludes by noting the city’s “strange and conflicting nature,” “[d]ominant and optimistic in one direction . . . casual and pessimistic in another.”36 The art critic Basil Burdett, also writing for The Home, reinforced Sydney’s unique cosmopolitan demeanor by framing its individual characteristics alongside those of other international cities:

Paris. The name evokes a vision of tree-lined boulevards, of pavement cafés and well-dressed women. London. You think of Whistler’s Thames, of the bustle of life in Picadilly, of fogs woven to iridescences with bright lights and coloured signs and little squares lined with dark trees and Georgian houses. . . .

And Sydney evokes a décor and an atmosphere no less certain and hardly less individual, although a swaddling infant as cities go. Golden beaches. Sun-tanned men and maidens. Headlands that dream in the atmospheric light of summer mornings.37

Like Stead, Burdett molds his portrait of Sydney within an international perspective, going so far as to describe it as “a miniature New York” (alluding to the tall buildings bordering the harbor precinct) while reinforcing its assured individuality (“Sydney of the Celebrations,” 23–24). In highlighting the city’s oneiric quality, achieved through its “atmospheric light,” Burdett adds to the chorus of voices in this period that drew attention to the city’s allure “the sardonic siren of the south—to which the world was bidden” in the words of Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack.38 If writers throughout this period were eager to convey Sydney’s cosmopolitanism—that is, its worldliness and sophistication—this was often framed through its opposite: youth, hedonism, inventiveness, and a mesmerizing charm. These conflicting qualities encapsulated Sydney’s image as “the New World below the equator,” the title of a Qantas airlines poster, designed by Douglas Annand, advertising Sydney’s charms, including the harbor foreshore colorfully lit up below the Southern Cross, with the new Sydney Harbour Bridge appearing as a faint outline in the distance.39

The “New World” poster predates Annand’s later immortalization of the dreamlike quality of the city and the powerful presence of the harbor in his “Venetian Nights, Sydney Harbour” poster (1938) (fig. 7). Commissioned for Australia’s 150th anniversary in 1938, Annand’s striking photomontage included a sweeping aerial view taken at night, with electric lights shimmering across the dark contours of the snaking harbor. [End Page 281]

Fig. 7. Douglas Annand, Australian National Travel Association, publisher (organization), Australia’s 150th Anniversary Pagentry – Carnival Sydney 1938,“Venetian Nights,” Sydney Harbour, photo-lithograph, printed in colour from multiple plates, 100.8 × 63.4 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift in memory of Spensley Charles and Gwendoline Mary Weetman, 1990.
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Fig. 7.

Douglas Annand, Australian National Travel Association, publisher (organization), Australia’s 150th Anniversary Pagentry – Carnival Sydney 1938,“Venetian Nights,” Sydney Harbour, photo-lithograph, printed in colour from multiple plates, 100.8 × 63.4 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift in memory of Spensley Charles and Gwendoline Mary Weetman, 1990.

© A. M. Annand.

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As one of Australia’s most innovative graphic artists, Annand introduced an international modernist style into his advertising work throughout the 1930s, incorporating cubist and surrealist elements, albeit with a distinctive focus on Australian place and culture. “Venetian Nights” interprets Sydney as a modern watery city, foreshadowing the poet Kenneth Slessor’s celebrated portrait of Sydney as “a kind of dispersed and vaguer Venice.”40 The Venetian analogy encapsulates the importance of Sydney’s littoral geography to the everyday life of its inhabitants, recalling the visiting D. H. Lawrence’s impression of “huge, restless, modern Sydney whose million inhabitants seem to slip like fish from one side of the harbour to the other.”41

As an anniversary celebration, the poster’s invocation of Sydney as a modern Venice—captured through the new technologies of aerial photography and electric street lighting, as well as its memorialization as a place of “carnival” and “pageantry”—celebrates the city’s cosmopolitan ambitions. While the poster incorporates an international design aesthetic with its angled text and image, the photomontage of the harbor captured from an aerial viewpoint is closer to the biomorphic forms in the work of Miro, Ernst, and André Masson, or the organic form of a Man Ray photogram. This eclectic fusion of modernist aesthetic styles was a trademark Annand practice and yet here it is the use of aerial photography that assists in the creation of a striking, surrealist image. As Duggan argues, “the city at night became an iconic image of modernity,” and in the 1930s the Sydney-based journal The Home became a constant source of images of Sydney and other Australian cities at night (Ghost Nation, 121). In “Venetian Nights,” the spectacular collection of colored lights dotting the night landscape signal Sydney’s modernization, while its curving harbor, resembling a piece of floating kelp, evokes the more enduring organic formation of the harbor waterways.

The city at night was also the subject of an earlier surrealist image by Dupain, Night with Her Train of Stars and Her Gift of Sleep (1936–37) (fig. 8). Here Dupain produced a striking image of urban Sydney dreaming its desire, with a photomontage of a woman’s breast and torso rising up over the slumbering city. The image thus evokes a surrealist preoccupation with the female body as erotic, nocturnal desire, transposing its symbolic form onto a modern, illuminated cityscape; overturning a more traditional iconography of the night by depicting the “train of stars” as modern electrical lighting, which had just been newly installed across the suburbs of Sydney. The striking juxtaposition of nude female torso and modern suburban night transforms the traditional romanticism of nocturnal imagery, with its metonymic association of celestial and female bodies (exemplified in Edward Robert Hughes’s belated Pre-Raphaelite painting of the same name).42

Dupain’s modernization of this theme, including the ironic replication of Hughes’s title, can be read as a defiant repudiation of the pictorial aesthetics that still dominated Australian photography and painting in this period. In updating Hughes’s painting with a provocative surrealist image, Dupain registered his growing frustration with the antimodernist tenor of local photography salons, while also positioning experimental forms of photography in terms of its historical transformation of the visual arts. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Dupain went on to deliver a searing critique [End Page 283]

Fig. 8. Max Dupain, Night with Her Train of Stars and Her Gift of Sleep, 1936–37, gelatin silver photograph, 30 × 36.1 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
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Fig. 8.

Max Dupain, Night with Her Train of Stars and Her Gift of Sleep, 1936–37, gelatin silver photograph, 30 × 36.1 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

of the conservative selection of images for The Australian Commemorative Salon of Photography exhibition held in Sydney in 1938 as part of Australia’s 150th anniversary celebrations.43 For Dupain, the selection of European photographs for the salon was indicative of the conservative ethos that dominated organizations such as the Photographic Society of New South Wales. Lamenting the exhibition’s lack of innovation, Dupain’s letter champions “the creative courage of Man Ray, the original thought of Professor Moholy Nagy, and the dynamic realism of Edouard Steichen,” castigating the pictorialist photography included in the show for clinging to the “nasty past”: “To believe this sentimentalised pre-Raphaelitism is representative of European photography is like calling the Royal Academy the consummation of European painting.”44 Increasingly strident in his tone, Dupain’s letter defends an adventurous modern photography underpinned by intellectual research against the “gentle narcotic” of pictorial sentimentality:

Great art has always been contemporary in spirit. To-day we feel the surge of aesthetic exploration along abstract lines, the social economic order impinging itself on art, the repudiation of the “truth to nature cri-terion,” and the galvanising of art and psychology. Our little collection from Europe, if it was really representative, would reflect these elements of modern adventure and re-search, but it is not; it is a flaccid thing, a gentle narcotic, something, to soothe our tired nerves after a weary day at the office! [End Page 284]

In referencing modern photography’s “surge of aesthetic exploration” in terms of “the galvanising of art and psychology,” Dupain registers a prescient awareness of the evolving debates that linked the new psychological discourses with photography’s unique experimental vision, namely the capacity of photography to extract a mechanical unconscious. Although the camera’s ability to capture the unseen is most famously associated with Walter Benjamin’s idea of an “optical unconscious,” Salvador Dalí had some years earlier spoken of “the photographic imagination” as relying on “the unconscious calculations of the machine.”45 In his essay “Unprecedented Photography,” first published in Das deutsche Lichtbild in 1927, Moholy-Nagy similarly made reference to “the mechanical imagination,” referring to the promise of new optical and chemical processes to ignite an “exact photographic language,” essentially claiming that photography represented a momentous transformation of the visual arts, concluding that “this century belongs to light.”46 Writing a year earlier in the mass-circulation daily, Paris Soir, Man Ray had claimed photography as “a marvelous explorer of those aspects that our retina never records, and that everyday inflict such cruel contradictions on the adorers of familiar visions.”47 In praising the “creative courage” of Man Ray and the “original thought” of Moholy-Nagy, Dupain framed his own work within the wide-ranging intellectual debates and experimental practices that situated photography as a preeminent modernist visual medium.

In response to the conservative ethos of the Photographic Society of New South Wales, Dupain established the short-lived Contemporary Camera Groupe, which held its first exhibition at the David Jones Art Gallery later that year and included photographers and graphic artists such as Cotton and Annand as well as older mentors Cecil Bostock and Harold Cazneaux.48 The catalog for the show included a short tract by Dupain that resembles the bombastic rhetoric of a manifesto. Championing the visionary modernity of experimental photography, Dupain asserts: “We hate the cliché, and would drive a wedge between stagnant orthodoxy and original thought of the living moment.”49 Dupain’s strident stance against “stagnant orthodoxy” was tempered by his support for “the masters whom we love,” a gesture that bears a striking resemblance to Breton’s own use of the manifesto to carve out a spirit of rebellion predicated on specified allegiance. The exhibition also aimed to “strengthen the liaison between photography and the other arts,” which it did by including in the exhibition Annand’s designs for the official booklet for Australia’s entry at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The Contemporary Camera Groupe exhibition was held at same time as work in Sydney was being carried out for the New York World’s Fair pavilion. As the design director for the Australian display, Annand led a team of artists, designers, architects, and photographers, including Dupain, who were creating an exhibit that “concentrated on photography and murals in an uncluttered modernist style,” including artworks by women modernist artists, Margaret Preston and Adrian Feint.50 Photography played a prominent role in the pavilion’s design with backlit hand-colored photographs of Australian scenes and themes by Russell Roberts and a large aerial photograph of Sydney Harbor by Dupain, hung above the other exhibits as a horizontal panorama. Closely resembling the aerial viewpoint in Annand’s own “Venetian Nights” poster, [End Page 285] aerial photography is enlisted to offer an unfamiliar vision of the city, whereby experiments in modern photography and innovations in aviation in the interwar period align to develop a powerful new topographical vision. The inclusion of experimental photographic techniques in the exhibit was singled out for praise, with Art and Australia noting the use of photomontage as “practically new to the New York Fair, where most photography is ‘straight.’”51 The pavilion’s modernist design was also admired by the English journal Architectural Review, which dismissed its own country’s entry as outdated and uninspiring, suggesting that the success of the Australian pavilion came from its team of artists, designers, photographers, and architects all working together to produce an effective modern display.52 In an essay for Art in Australia, Annand reflected on his experience as the design director, observing how international fairs and exhibitions “had widened the scope of the camera artist, and . . . increased the commercial field for photography,” suggesting they had also done much to educate and “improve public taste.”53 Like the Camera Groupe exhibition’s bold attempts to forge alliances between photography and the other arts, the New York World’s Fair provided Australian photographers and designers the opportunity to internationalize their modern vision of the nation through the display of their innovative cross-media approach, one which positioned Australian photography firmly within modernism’s multimedia experimental ethos. Dupain’s collaborations with Annand point to a shared sensibility and desire for experimentation across both photography and design.54

In the local context, it was The Home that played an important role in widening the scope of modernist photography and design, including surrealist imagery. Edited by Sydney Ure Smith, who also published Australia’s premier art journal, Art in Australia, The Home was instrumental in the promulgation of a modernist aesthetic across a wide range of commercial, avant-garde, and high art forms, including interior design, fashion, architecture, garden design, photography, and painting.55 It showcased the work of artists, photographers and designers, cultivating a lively discussion of modernism in local and international contexts. It was not uncommon, however, for the journal to carry vestiges of an older pictorialist tradition, with traditional landscape painters and pictorial photographers exhibiting work alongside more experimental modernists such as Dupain and Annand. The Home also forged an important relationship with the David Jones department store, which at this time was under the directorship of Charles Lloyd Jones, a close friend of Ure Smith and a prominent figure in the Sydney art world. David Jones also played a vital role in Dupain’s career, commissioning him to photograph dozens of fashion shoots for the store’s catalogs and advertising material as well as fashion spreads for The Home throughout the mid-to-late 1930s. Much of Dupain’s commercial work exhibits a bold surrealist aesthetic as well as a vision of Sydney as a distinctive metropolitan commercial hub.56

Although Dupain’s fashion photography exhibits an eclectic range of influences, one of his more innovative shoots from this period involved a fashion spread on evening gowns for David Jones, which appeared in The Home in 1937 under the title “Afternoon of a Mannequin” (figs. 910). Shot on location in the Cronulla sand dunes, a southern beach suburb of Sydney, Dupain created an urbane, cosmopolitan image that encapsulated the laid-back sensibility of the Sydney lifestyle. In one image from this [End Page 286] shoot—the casual framing of the shot, with one model receding into the distance, the other close up and slightly off-center—injects a languid, bohemian quality, undermining the strict formality of the evening gowns (fig. 9). In another shot, deep footprints and linear ridges of wind-blown sand, along with the raking late-afternoon light, accentuate the timeless, dreamlike quality of the dunes, creating a mythical landscape reminiscent of Dalí’s desert dreamscapes (fig. 10).57

While outdoor locations had recently introduced a spontaneous realism into fashion photography, inspired by Martin Munkacsi’s work for Harper’s Bazaar, Dupain’s use of the beach as a setting for formal eveningwear was innovative and bold since it was swimwear and leisure wear that were the subject of beachside fashion shoots.58 Munkasci’s beachside photographs made the clothes central to the image and its location, whereas Dupain sets up a striking discordance between formal eveningwear and the surreal littoral landscape. If the overall mood of the images evokes a languid spontaneity, reminiscent of much of his surrealist-inspired beachside imagery, Dupain nevertheless alludes to the city’s disjunctive personality by invoking a subtle tension between worldly, modern elegance and seductive, youthful charm. Dupain’s choice of location for this shoot reflects The Home’s regular inclusion of the new recreational activities that extended to a burgeoning beach culture among Sydney’s smart set. As Duggan notes, The Home in this period was often less concerned with the conventional feminized interests of domestic interiors and household management than in promoting new lifestyle and cultural activities such as gallery openings, parties, race meetings, fashion events, the Russian Ballet (which visited Sydney three times in this period), and other experiences of cosmopolitan city life (Ghost Nation, 15).59 While Dupain would occasionally offer wry commentary on these activities, as with his rather deliberately clichéd surrealist portraits of society figures and surrealist-themed parties, his commercial work afforded him the opportunity for bold experimentation. The “Afternoon of a Mannequin” series demonstrates a close relationship to his earlier “Seaside Surrealism” images, extending his surreal vision into Sydney’s burgeoning commodity culture.

In a poster for the Orient Cruise Company, which also appeared in The Home in 1937, Dupain created another startling commercial image by double exposing an unraveled roll of film onto a photograph of the sun rising up over the sea, a familiar vista for beachside Sydney inhabitants (figs. 1112). Here Dupain’s use of light, capturing the rising sun just as it breaks through the clouds, accentuates the textured surface of the sea, with a shaft of light emanating from the clouds traveling down the center of the image, illuminating a roll of film floating above the water. The image captures the inscrutable calm and explosive drama of the sea as the morning light bursts through the clouds. The inclusion, in the published version of the advertisement, of hand-drawn pictograms on the surface of the roll of film recalls the recurrent analogy of modern photography to hieroglyphics, an argument Michael North suggests accentuated photography’s claim to aesthetic distinction through its capacity to reorder visual experience.60 The montage of the roll of film over the sea frames experimental modernist photography itself as an innately hallucinatory medium, conjuring, in the final advertisement image, a double vision of a mythic Oceania and a new world of modern tourism. [End Page 287]

Fig. 9. Max Dupain, Untitled (Two women on a beach, one in white, one in black holding gladiola: fashion shoot for David Jones), recto, 1937, silver gelatin photograph, 37.5 × 29.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
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Fig. 9.

Max Dupain, Untitled (Two women on a beach, one in white, one in black holding gladiola: fashion shoot for David Jones), recto, 1937, silver gelatin photograph, 37.5 × 29.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

[End Page 288]

Fig. 10. Max Dupain, “Afternoon of a Mannequin,” advertisement for David Jones, The Home, February, 1, 1938.
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Fig. 10.

Max Dupain, “Afternoon of a Mannequin,” advertisement for David Jones, The Home, February, 1, 1938.

[End Page 289]

Dupain’s commercial work in this period drew on surrealist photographic techniques and themes to impart a striking visual-sensory vocabulary that assisted in portraying the Harbor City as urbane and cosmopolitan, but also playful and iconoclastic. Like Man Ray’s own fashion photographs, Dupain’s surrealist-inspired commercial work was part of a broader development throughout the 1930s that saw a vital cross-pollination between the commercial world and avant-garde aesthetics. Fashion designers, window dressers, and retailers as well as the print media monitored the surrealists’ activities, purloining their photographic techniques, visual artifices, and artworks for their own commercial aesthetic enterprise. Surrealist artists had also long sought opportunities in the commercial world to transform the visual culture of modernity. Dalí, Magritte, Man Ray, and Maurice Tabard all worked in commercial arenas throughout the 1920s and 30s, combining avant-garde experimentation with commercial design. As North has argued in relation to the period after World War I, the photography that made the greatest impact was not photography that aspired to the status of “but rather the vernacular photography that went into advertisements, illustrated magazines, and, ultimately cinema.” Photography thus enjoyed a privileged status in so far as it “linked the avant-garde, technological modernity, and mass culture” (North, Camera Works, 15–16). Moholy-Nagy, whom we know Dupain held in high regard, saw advertising photography as a new form of experimental visual expression. In particular, he had long recognized the power of photomontage in advertising work to produce what he called a “super-reality” that matched our intensified spatial and temporal relation to the modern world.61

Dupain also produced an astonishing range of noncommercial images inspired by surrealism, many of which were reproduced in Art and Australia and in the Art and Photography section of The Home. One such image was “Spring Sky” (1937), which formed part of a series of experiments with double exposure, comprising the more experimentally titled, Photo Synthesis (1937) from the same shoot (fig. 13). In both these works, Dupain produces an uncanny fusion of human and arboreal forms, with the branches and leaves of a tree superimposed onto the head and hair of a woman, as though forming an X-ray vision of the human skull’s complex network of cranial bones and vessels. Dupain’s title’s reference to photosynthesis recalls Man Ray’s description of his own photographic images as “oxidized residues, fixed by light and chemical elements, of living organisms” in his introductory essay to Soby’s book, which we know Dupain read closely. In “The Age of Light” essay, Man Ray had declared that “[t]he awakening of desire is the first step to participation and experience,” describing his suite of images in the book—which included nudes, portraits, and rayograms of everyday objects—as “autobiographical images” since they constituted a record of Man Ray’s encounters with the world around him, a world in which the camera becomes not simply a new form of mechanical vision, or even a kind of hieroglyphics, but a new way to experience the world through everyday forms of “emotional contact” (“The Age of Light,” 53).

Through the process of double exposure, that is, the synthesis of two photo images, Photo Synthesis draws together two distinct realities, creating a disjointed, hallucinatory vision that looks beyond the everyday empirical world. These images are reminiscent [End Page 290]

Fig. 11. Untitled (Sea photo-montage), n.d., gelatin silver photograph, 31.6 × 24.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
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Fig. 11.

Untitled (Sea photo-montage), n.d., gelatin silver photograph, 31.6 × 24.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

[End Page 291]

Fig. 12. Max Dupain, Orient Line Cruise advertisement, The Home, February 1, 1937.
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Fig. 12.

Max Dupain, Orient Line Cruise advertisement, The Home, February 1, 1937.

[End Page 292]

of Tabard’s own photomontage work from the late 1920s and early 1930s, including Walking Tree (1929), which uses double exposure to morph a pair of women’s legs into the base of a tree spreading its branches against a modern cityscape. While there is no hint of the modern city in Dupain’s image, the anthropomorphizing of the tree and the patterned foliage translucently covering the woman’s face produces a chance-like encounter that dissolves the boundary between human subject and external environment. In transposing a hallucinated vision of the natural topography onto a feminized human subject, Dupain conveys a surrealist dépaysement, wresting photography away from its blunt recording function and imparting instead and enigmatic indeterminacy.

In many of Dupain’s nude studies, such as Abstract Movement (1935) and Impassioned Clay (1937), the naked female body is subject to similar uncanny surface effects (fig. 14).62 These images utilize the techniques of solarization and montage to impart a dynamic movement, in contrast to the usual static treatment of the nude body. In Impassioned Clay, the montage of a fragment of twisted shell onto the torso of a female body creates an exaggerated illusion of the body’s twisted or moving form. The surface effect of stone or clay on the model’s body similarly invokes a ubiquitous surrealist juxtaposition of inanimate statue and living human form, a tension reinforced by the image’s title. The photograph was exhibited in a show of Dupain’s work, alongside that of Russell Roberts, at the Industrial Art Society gallery in Sydney in early 1938, where an anonymous reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald singled it out as one of Dupain’s “most successful images.”63 Ecstatic with praise for Dupain’s work in the show, the reviewer concluded:

There can be little doubt that in this exhibition Max Dupain established his right to a place among the leading photographers of the world. We see him not merely as a photographic illustrator, but as a creative photographer, with exceptional energy and imagination, bent on liberating photography from the limit of mechanical representation.

(“Impressive Exhibition”)

Although the reviewer concludes that Dupain’s treatment of his subjects is not always “intrinsically beautiful,” the flexibility and inventiveness of his approach signals “progress.” The review’s attention to Dupain’s progressive liberation of the photographic medium together with his startling treatment of “commonplace objects” reveals the early appreciation of Dupain’s surrealist photography, one that transforms the everyday and the commonplace, in the eyes of this reviewer, through “energy and imagination.”

In countless nude studies from this period, Dupain introduces a streamlined body and dynamism that accentuates a palpable sensuality and athleticism, reflecting what Denise Mimmocchi argues was Sydney’s interwar “desire for a vitally reconstituted society.”64 While critics have linked Dupain’s fascination with the body, and indeed the outdoor environment, to his father’s professional interest in physical fitness, dietetics, and the body hygiene movement, Dupain has distanced himself from what he saw as his father’s overriding interest in science and reason: [End Page 293]

Fig. 13. Max Dupain, Photo Synthesis (Woman and trees), c. 1930s, gelatin silver photograph, 28 × 25.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
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Fig. 13.

Max Dupain, Photo Synthesis (Woman and trees), c. 1930s, gelatin silver photograph, 28 × 25.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

I always adored DH Lawrence . . . . The old man [Dupain’s father] was science and reason, Lawrence was all instinct and intuition . . . I worshipped his sensitivity to life and circumstances, his beautiful verbal response to life and nature, man and women. I wanted to believe that I was just as sensitive and could respond to my world in terms of the machine age. I would bend the machine to suit my own reflective terms.

(“Interview with Max Dupain,” 9)65

Lawrence’s vitalism and antirationalism accorded with Dupain’s own sensual response to the material world.66 And yet Dupain resisted an overarching Lawrentian fear of technological modernity, seeing in the camera a new way to respond to the machine age. But Dupain’s embrace of surrealism was also in part a reaction to the purist aesthetic of the New Objectivity movement and a rejection of the scientism increasingly associated [End Page 294]

Fig. 14. Max Dupain, Impassioned Clay, 1937, gelatin silver photograph, 46 × 32.9 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
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Fig. 14.

Max Dupain, Impassioned Clay, 1937, gelatin silver photograph, 46 × 32.9 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

[End Page 295]

with the industrial aesthetic, without completely repudiating the machine age’s inevitable modernizing impulse. The manipulation of light to draw out the sensuality of the external world and the people and objects in it is one of the hallmark features of Dupain’s surrealist-inspired work. That sensuality is close to a kind of surrealist vitalism exemplified by the awakening of desire driving Man Ray’s photographic encounter with everyday experience.


Dupain’s exploration and transformation of Sydney through a surrealist photographic idiom—alongside his philosophical commitment to the experiential and the nonrational (“instinct and intuition”)—invited audiences to imagine the city as a site of revelation and possibility. In his illuminating discussion of the surrealist invention of the everyday, Sheringham locates a strong vitalist undercurrent that drives the surrealist quest, suggesting that far from transcending the everyday, surrealism remains continually anchored to it:

For Surrealism, the possible is contained in the actual . . . The problem is to find a way of grasping it, and this involved both deconditioning: getting round the barriers that have grown up to impede access to our own lives; and active prospecting: the invention of strategies that will propitiate the revelation of what is virtual yet inaccessible. Either way, the surrealist “practice of existence” (Blanchot) addresses the concrete world of the here and now, the present. The crucial dimension of Surrealism is that of experience.67

Dupain’s repudiation of cliché and orthodoxy (“deconditioning”) underpinned his fascination with surrealism, allowing him to uncover the conflicted nature of a city in transition: between the ancient and the modern, between youthful hedonism and cosmopolitan sophistication. His “active prospecting” of the familiar sites of Sydney produced a body of images made strange by a surrealist sensibility, drawing out the hallucinated quality of the city by framing its distinctive physical qualities through the emotional residues of revelation and desire. The unique atmospheric conditions that had been so prized by the “sunshine school” of photography—with its own updating of pictorialism to reflect the play of strong sunlight and shadow distinctive to the Australian landscape—were transformed through a surrealist idiom that stressed the concrete and the revelatory. While Dupain repudiated the soft-focus and painterly effects of pictorialism, he found in surrealism a way to represent the startling environmental qualities of his city alongside its rapid modernization and burgeoning consumer culture, producing a spatial disorientation that exposed the tensions between the natural and the artificial, the local and the international. As Michael Richardson has observed, surrealism was perhaps unique among avant-garde movements in terms of its international spread and its propensity, from the 1930s onwards, to “engage with local conditions,” reflecting a movement that was “reciprocally energised” by a “poetics of relation.”68 As such, local variants of surrealism invariably exhibited a determination to frame regional [End Page 296] idiosyncrasies through the prism of a surrealist sensibility tied to the broad principles of transformation and liberation.

As Dupain’s interest in surrealist photography began to wane with the approach of World War II, Sydney was about to get its first taste of European surrealism. The Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art in 1939 was one of the first blockbuster exhibitions mounted in Australia, bringing with it an extensive range of modernist artworks, including surrealist works by Dalí, de Chirico, Ernst, and Picasso. Curated by Basil Burdett, the exhibition opened in Adelaide before traveling to other capital cities, arriving in Sydney in October, at the newly opened David Jones department store in Elizabeth Street. This was to be the first of a series of overseas contemporary art exhibitions that the store would host in its dedicated gallery on the seventh floor.69 The National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales had refused to house the exhibition, in part because it had been financed by the media entrepreneur Keith Murdoch and heavily promoted in his newspapers, although both institutions were decidedly conservative and antimodernist. Nevertheless, audiences flocked to the exhibition in Sydney and were extremely receptive to the modernist works on display, even clamoring for the return to the exhibition of Dalí’s La memoire de la femme-enfant (1932) after its removal in the wake of its sensational reception in Adelaide and Melbourne. In spite of the public’s enthusiasm, conservative critics condemned the show, with the art critic and director of the National Gallery of Victoria, J. S. MacDonald famously describing the artists represented in the exhibition as “degenerates and perverts” and the works themselves as “putrid meat” (Chanin and Miller, Degenerates and Perverts, 139). The tenor of this critique was extended with Lionel Lindsay’s much later conservative backlash tract, Addled Art, which contained a chapter on surrealist art, framed with an epigraph from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, “To see life foully,” serving to define Lindsay’s dismissal of surrealist art as “decadent” and “fraudulent,” replete with “sex and scatological implications.”70 While conservative critics continued to rage against the show, Sydney audiences kept pouring into the exhibition, with the final tally exceeding record attendances at the Sydney Cricket Ground (Chanin and Miller, Degenerates and Perverts, 142). It seemed that Sydney audiences loved modernism (including surrealism) as much as—if not more—than their cricket.

The assimilation of a surrealist aesthetic into Sydney’s photography and advertising culture helped transform the everyday visual world of Sydney in the 1930s, contributing to the complex portrait of the city that emerged in this period. The cross-pollination of commercial and modernist art, including a striking array of surrealist techniques and themes, precipitated the public’s acclimatization to a varied modernist aesthetic so that by the arrival of the Herald Exhibition in 1939, Sydney audiences had already encountered a surrealist visual vocabulary: not via the formal space of the art gallery but through the everyday visual world of the department store, the billboard poster, advertising, and print culture. In his perceptive account of the commercial and experimental impetus of Dupain’s work, Geoffrey Batchen has argued that much of the work from the 1930s weaves together “a modernity happily promoted within mass culture, a modernist rhetoric suspected and even feared by the fine arts establishment, and a [End Page 297] New (hence modern) Vision seen by this same establishment as nationalist and therefore acceptable.”71 Dupain and Cotton’s experiments with surrealism—together with Annand’s immortalization of the city as an antipodean Venice—created an ambitiously cosmopolitan yet vernacularized vision of Sydney: at once modern and mythical, young and old, as well as hedonistic and self-reflective. Sydney’s startling light, distinct geographical features, and cultural temperament offered new possibilities for promoting the myth of rebellion from a clichéd past, and the liberation of a modernizing “New World below the equator.” A similar portrait emerges in the pages of The Home and in Stead’s earlier literary evocation of the city’s disjunctive landscape and cultural temperament. Australia’s success at the New York World’s Fair similarly accelerated the importance of modernist Australian photography at home and aboard.72 All of which reflect the broader dynamics of a virtual cosmopolitanism, which, as Mitter reveals, brought about new diffusions and transformations of modernism that complicate the static power relations of center and periphery.73

Natalya Lusty

Natalya Lusty is an Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and is the author of Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (2007) and, with Helen Groth, Dreams and Modernity: A Cultural History (2013), She is co-editor of the anthology Modernism and Masculinity (2014) and the forthcoming collection Photography and Ontology: Unsettling Images (Routledge, 2018).


My thanks to the two anonymous reviewers whose comments have undoubtedly improved this article. I would also like to thank those who provided generous feedback and encouragement each time I have presented this work: firstly at the British Association of Modernist Studies conference in London, where I presented alongside the wonderfully cosmopolitan Motonori Sato; my thanks to Donna West Brett for inviting me to participate in a panel on surrealist photography at the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand conference in 2013; and finally my gratitude to Keith Broadfoot and the department of Art History at the University of Sydney for the opportunity to present this work to hardheaded art historians.

1. Walter Benjamin, quoted in Laurie Duggan, Ghost Nation: Imagined Space and Australian Visual Culture (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2001).

2. See Melissa Miles’s illuminating discussion of this mythology in “Light, Nation, and Place in Australian Photography,” Photography and Culture 6, no. 3 (2013): 259–77.

3. While Duggan is referring to the photographer’s obsession with forms of illumination transforming the modern city at night, he nevertheless argues that the newly modernizing city and its structures nurtured “visions of the unreality of ‘all that is solid’ and the presence of things only peripherally visible.”

4. While Gael Newtown has written extensively on Dupain’s entire oeuvre, she early on acknowledged the need for “a more serious examination of [Dupain’s] contribution to [surrealism’s] influence on Australian art” (Shades of Light: Photography and Australia, 1939–1988 [Sydney: Australian National Gallery, 1988], 32, exhibition catalog). Christopher Chapman’s early survey essay examines a small selection of Dupain’s images from this period. See Christopher Chapman, “Surrealism in Australia,” in Surrealism: Revolution by Night (Roseville East: Fine Arts Press, 1993), 216–301. The most sustained examination of Dupain’s surrealist images can be found in Ken Wach, “Subjectivity Incorporated: The Surrealist Vignette in the Photography of Max Dupain,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 1, no. 1 (2000): 107–30. While Wach’s essay gives Dupain’s surrealist images full consideration in terms of their “conceptual sophistication” and acknowledges that this body of work is “underrated,” his essay seeks “to isolate various surrealist principles, as propounded by André Breton, and to apply them to selected photographs.” By contrast, the aim of this article is draw out Dupain’s locally inflected surrealism, drawn from his close study of Man Ray’s technical and conceptual innovations, to convey the everyday visual landscape of Sydney as a hallucinatory experience.

5. Helen Ennis argues that surrealism offered Dupain “an expanded visual repertoire which [he] exploited for dramatic, unexpected effects in [his] personal and commercial work,” concluding that his “experimentation was more playful than profound” (Photography and Australia [London: Reaktion, 2007], 80). [End Page 298]

6. In a series of notes written in 1976 and included in an exhibition catalog in 2007, Dupain spoke of his break with convention in terms of his discovery of photographers such as Man Ray: “The salon indulgence petered out when I discovered Man Ray, Hoyninger Huene [sic], Horst, Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Brandt, Brassai, Bresson etc, etc. Man Ray particularly appealed to my sense of the radical. Lets [sic] kick convention right up the arse and do a new thing” (“Interview with Max Dupain,” in Max Dupain: Modernist [New South Wales: State Library of New South Wales, 2007], 7, exhibition catalog).

7. Partha Mitter and Keith Moxey, “A ‘Virtual Cosmopolis’: Partha Mitter in Conversation with Keith Moxey,” The Art Bulletin 95, no. 3 (2013): 381–92, 384.

8. Christopher Phillips, introduction to Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), xi–xvii, xiii.

9. Nancy Underhill, early on, argued that photography played an important role in the spread of surrealism in Australia through the work of Max Dupain. See Nancy Underhill, Making Australian Art, 1916–49: Sydney Ure Smith, Patron and Publisher (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1991), 205–7.

10. André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and H. R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 288–89.

11. André Breton, “Originality and Freedom,” Art in Australia, February 1941–42, 206–8.

12. In addition to Dupain’s extensive body of surrealist photographs, painters such as Eric Thake, Peter Purves Smith, James Gleeson, and James Cant produced work directly inspired by surrealism before 1940.

13. For a discussion of surrealism in the Pacific, see Anthony White, “Terra Incognita: Surrealism and the Pacific Region,” Papers of Surrealism 6 (2007): 1–8.

14. Australian artists who were in London at the time of the surrealist exhibition were Roy de Maistre and James Cant. See Rex Butler and A. D. S. Donaldson, “Surrealism and Australia: Toward a World History of Surrealism,” Journal of Art Historiography 9 (2013): 1–15, 4–8, /

15. T. H. Cochran, “An Australian in London,” The Home, September 1, 1936, 34–35, 34.

16. De Maistre’s work was reproduced in Art Now while Lye’s was reproduced in Surrealism.

17. Chapman notes that Man Ray’s Glass Tears, c. 1930, was reproduced in The Home in February, 1934, illustrating recipes for salads.

18. Max Dupain, “Man Ray: His Place in Modern Photography,” The Home, October 1, 1935, 38–39.

19. Max Dupain, “Max Dupain,” Art in Australia, November 5, 1935, 40. The quote first appeared in G. H. Saxon Mills, “Modern Photography, its Development, Scope and Possibilities,” Modern Photography, ed. C. Holme (London: Studio, 1931), 14.

20. According to Gael Newton, Dupain was one of the few Australian photographers who understood the intellectual arguments underpinning the rise of modern photography and “was an isolated figure working to make the new style deeply expressive of his personal (but not sentimental) response to the world” (Silver and Grey: Fifty Years of Australian Photography, 1900–1950 [London: Angus and Robertson, 1980], 23).

21. Man Ray, “The Age of Light (1934),” in Photography in the Modern Era, 52–54.

22. Michael Sheringham, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 86.

23. Christopher Phillips, “Resurrecting Vision: European Photography Between the World Wars,” in The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars, ed. Maria Morris Hambourg and Christopher Phillips (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 65–108, 101, exhibition catalog.

24. Pierre Mac Orlan, “The Literary Art of Imagination and Photography,” in Photography in the Modern Era, 27–30, 29.

25. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932 although construction had begun almost a decade earlier, in 1923.

26. Cotton, quoted in Olive Cotton: Photographer, ed. Helen Ennis (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1995), 6, exhibition catalog. [End Page 299]

27. See Ian Walker, So Exotic, So Homemade: Surrealism, Englishness and Documentary Photography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 35.

28. Andrew Causey, introduction to Paul Nash: Writings on Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 27.

29. For a discussion of the anachronistic nature of Nash’s surrealist photographs of Swanage, see James Wilkes, A Fractured Landscape of Modernity: Culture and Conflict in the Isle of Purbeck (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 90–97.

30. Stead redrafted the novel while living in Paris from 1929–34. See Brigid Rooney, “Loving the Revolutionary: Re-reading Christina Stead’s Encounter with Men, Marxism and the Popular Front in 1930s Paris,” Southerly 58, no. 4 (1988–89): 84–102.

31. Dorothy Green, “Chaos, or a Dancing Star? Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney,” Meanjin Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1968): 150–61, 160. According to Duggan, “[t]hrough the pages of Stead’s novel there is a constant sense of the city as a hallucinatory place; a sense that the built environment only succeeded in undermining the absolute” (Ghost Nation, 120).

32. Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Sydney: Imprint Classics, Angus and Robertson, 1991), 1. Although written in the late 1920s it was not published until 1934.

33. Margaret Harris, introduction to Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, v–xiv, vii.

34. Paul Giles, Antipodean America: Australasia and the Constitution of U. S. Literature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 347.

35. Peter Kirkpatrick, “Walking Through Seven Poor Men of Sydney,” in “Australian Writing and the City,” special issue, JASAL (1999): 62–67, 62.

36. “Australian Capital Cities: Sydney,” The Home, October 1, 1937, 88–89, 89.

37. Basil Burdett, “Sydney of the Celebrations,” The Home, Febuary 1, 1938, 23–24, 24.

38. Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack, Pioneers on Parade (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1939), 1.

39. Douglas Annand, “Sydney: See the New World Below the Equator,” poster commissioned by ANTA (Australian National Travel Association) in association with Qantas, c. 1934–37.

40. See Portrait of Sydney: A Photographic Impression with an Illuminating Article by Kenneth Slessor, ed. Gwen Morton Spencer and Sam Ure Smith (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1950).

41. D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo (1923; rpt., London: Heinemann, 1963), 5.

42. Contemporary critics regarded Hughes’s work as anachronistic since the art of the Pre-Raphaelite movement was by this point considered an antiquated, nineteenth-century movement.

43. The salon was organized by the Photographic Society of New South Wales and held at the Commonwealth Bank Chambers in Sydney from March 23 to April 9, 1938. Harold Cazneaux, one of Australia’s most renowned pictorialist photographers, and a mentor and close friend of Dupain, was responsible for the selection of images in the European section.

44. Max Dupain, letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, March 28, 1938.

45. Salvador Dalí, “Photography, Pure Creation of the Mind,” rpt. in Manifesto: A Century of Isms, ed. Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 482–83, 483.

46. László Moholy-Nagy, “Unprecedented Photography,” in Photography in the Modern Era, 83–85, 84.

47. Man Ray, “Deceiving Appearances,” rpt. in Photography in the Modern Era, 11–12, 12. The article originally appeared in Paris Soir, March 23, 1926.

48. Gael Newton argues that although “[a] notice for the exhibition had claimed that it was ‘prophetic in its modernity’ . . . the titles suggest a lesser degree of difference from Modernist works in Pictorialist salons than the announcements indicated” (Shades of Light, 113).

49. Exhibition of Photographic Studies by Contemporary Camera Groupe (Sydney: David Jones Exhibition Gallery, 1938), exhibition catalog. The catalog is housed in the Art Gallery of New South Wales archive.

50. Anne McDonald, Douglas Annand: The Art of Life (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2001), 39, exhibition catalog.

51. G. H. Beiers, “The Australian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair,” Art in Australia, August 15, 1940, 78. [End Page 300]

52. As Ann Stephen argues, the “cross-media character [of the Australian pavilion] was akin to the early design-focused avant-garde movements such as Constructivism and the Bauhaus, which had been its inspiration” (“Designing for the World of Tomorrow: Australia at the 1939 New York World’s Fair,” re:Collections: Journal of the Australian Museum 1, no. 1 [2006]: 29–40, 39).

53. Douglas Annand, “Australia at the World’s Fair”, Art in Australia, February 14, 1939, 58–59, 59.

54. Commercial art in Australia in this period was regarded as particularly innovative, with one reviewer from Art and Australia claiming that the nation “led the Dominions in poster work” (quoted in Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art [Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2005], 141).

55. Ure Smith brought together Australian designers, artists, architects, and illustrators in his various publications, including the premier art journal, Art in Australia (1916–42), Home (1920–42), and later Australia, National Journal (1939–47). See Nancy Underhill, Making Australian Art, 1916–49 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

56. As an apprentice to Cecil Bostock in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dupain had assisted in photographing the spectacular modernist store windows designed by Henry Bindoff for David Jones. Dupain’s early exposure to the success of Bindoff’s modernist windows had a profound influence on his decision to experiment with surrealist techniques in his commercial work, having seen firsthand the public’s enthusiasm for innovative aesthetics. Dupain suggested as much in an interview shortly before his death, where he claimed that versatility and a refusal of orthodoxy had defined his career, in terms of subject matter and technique but also through the opportunities for experimentation afforded by commercial work. He suggests he learned the trait from his mentor, Cecil Bostock. See his interview in Helen Ennis, Max Dupain: Photographs (Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1991), 23–25, exhibition catalog.

57. A photograph of Dupain at work on this shoot, Fashion Shoot, Cronulla Sandills (1937), was taken by Olive Cotton, providing a rare glimpse of Dupain on location as well as insight into the couple’s working life.

58. Martin Munkácsi’s pioneering shots of the socialite and model Lucile Brokow, running along the beachfront sporting a range of swimwear fashions, appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1933, introducing a new dynamic aesthetic into fashion photography.

59. Dupain photographed the Russian Ballet extensively throughout this period, with his images frequently appearing in The Home from 1936 to 1940.

60. This image encapsulates the very idea of “light writing,” which Michael North has discussed in terms of the way “photography has always promised a new sign system” and the metaphor of hieroglyphics often used to convey the sense of photography as a new “picture language” (Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth Century [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007], 36).

61. See Lázsló Moholy-Nagy, “Photography in Advertising,” rpt. in Photography in the Modern Era, 86–93, 92.

62. Dupain was one of the few Australian modernist photographers in this period producing nude studies, many of them incorporating surrealist visual references.

63. “Impressive Exhibition: Messrs. Dupain and Roberts,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 31, 1938.

64. Denise Mimmocchi, “Making Sydney Modern: The Artistic Shaping of the Postwar City,” in Sydney Moderns: Art for a New World (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013), 79, exhibition catalog.

65. See also Isobel Crombie, Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture, 1919–1939 (Melbourne: Peleus Press in association with the National Gallery of Victoria, 2004).

66. Dupain produced a surrealist photocollage image, titled Homage to D. H. Lawrence, in 1937, which included in the image a copy of The Selected Poems of D. H. Lawrence. As Crombie notes, Dupain was influenced by Lawrence’s ideas on vitalism, in particular the idea of the intuitive self.

67. Michael Sheringham, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 67–68.

68. Michael Richardson, “Surrealism Faced with Cultural Difference,” in Cosmopolitan Modernisms, ed. Kobena Mercer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 68–85, 73–74. [End Page 301]

69. Charles Lloyd Jones, the director of David Jones, was determined that all of his stores devote space to the exhibition of art. See Bruce Ramage, “A Gallery within a Department Store” (Ph. D diss., University of Sydney, 1982). In a radio interview with Charles Lloyd Jones in 1941, Sydney Ure Smith commented, “whenever you have travelled, art has always lured you away from the strict path of commerce” (quoted in Helen O’Neill, David Jones [New South Wales: New South Publishing, 2013], 258).

70. Lionel Lindsay, Addled Art (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1942), 13.

71. Geoffrey Batchen, “Creative Actuality: The Photography of Max Dupain,” Art Monthly 45 (1991): 2–5, 3.

72. For a discussion of Australian modernism and cultural imperialism, see Bill Ashcroft and John Salter, “Modernism’s Empire: Australia and the Cultural Imperialism of Style,” in Modernism and Empire: Writing and British Coloniality 1890–1940, ed. Howard J. Booth and Nigel Rigby (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 292–323.

73. Partha Mitter, “Reflections on Modern Art and National Identity in Colonial India: An Interview,” in Cosmopolitan Modernisms, 24–49, 39. [End Page 302]

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