Modernism first came to Australia in the mid-1910s through migrants1, expatriates, exhibitions and publications. The movement spanned five turbulent decades, including global wars, economic depression, technological advance and massive social change. Inspired by early European avant-gardes2, the modernist movement3 affected many forms of arts and commerce. While modernism was expressed differently in each of these forms, the common thread was a rejection of traditional representations of the world. The focus was on form over content and style over subject matter. The modernist approach was enabled, in part, by advances in science and technology. Carter, Jeff (b. 1928), At the Pasha nightclub, Cooma, late 1950s. Image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum4 Many aspects of modernism made their way into Australian culture quite freely. By the 1930s, modern style flourished in retail, entertainment, pubs, milk bars, modern swimming pools and fashion. It was not until the late 1950s – early 1960s that the realms of architecture5, photography6, sculpture and fine art7 received greater acceptance. However, the unfamiliar language of modern art often met with strong and passionate resistance from Australia’s general public and art establishment. Australia’s reception to modernism is a complex story of spasmodic cultural transformation led by avant-garde experiments and the creative exchange between modern artists8, designers9 and architects10. From reshaping the environment (in particular city living) to affecting body image, social life and ideals about design, its impact has been profound. Foundations
Taking their cue from international modernist movements, including the Bauhaus11, abstract expressionism and French symbolism, Australian modernists experimented and collaborated across artistic disciplines. Better-known modernist groupings include the contemporary art societies in Melbourne12, Sydney13 and Adelaide14; the Arts and Crafts Society; Angry Penguin poets15; the Angry Penguin painters16, including Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, John Perceval, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester; and the Hill End painters17. Smaller projects explored modernist influences too. Abstract projects and exhibitions
In 1919, Australian artist Roy de Maistre18 developed a colour-music theory in response to the post–First World War19 emphasis on understanding art, particularly colour, through science. The ‘Colour in Art’ exhibition of paintings and colour organisations by de Maistre and artist Roland Wakelin20 did not impress the public, but de Maistre’s colour-music theory was patented for interior design, which was a more acceptable expression of modernism. De Maistre, Roy (1894-1968), Colour chart, 1919, oil on cardboard, 30.5 x 40.5cm. Image courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales: DA63.1968. In 1943, New York’s Museum of Modern Art21 (MOMA) launched its international cultural exchange program22. Australia was a recipient, starting with MOMA’s small multiple show and publication, ‘What is Modern Painting?’ Since Australian art museums were mostly unsupportive of modern art, exhibitions were hosted by retailers such as David Jones23 and the Myer Emporium24. In the early 1960s, Melbourne’s Gallery A, led by designer and sculptor, Clement Meadmore25 and manufacturer, Max Hutchinson undertook modernist projects and exhibitions, including Janet Dawson’s, ‘The Bauhaus: Aspects and Influence’. However, modern art still lacked public appeal and state support, and Gallery A’s vision lasted only three years. It was not until the 1960s that art museums started hosting modern shows, and with the arrival of MOMA’s 1967 exhibition ‘Two decades of American painting’, the status and influence of modern art was finally acknowledged. Aboriginal ‘modernism’
From the 1920s, modernist artist Margaret Preston26, an Australian of European descent, campaigned for Aboriginal art to be considered as a form of Australian modernism. The boomerang, with its...