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Australian audiences are familiar with the work of Margaret Preston – her still lifes are a permanent fixture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – and Grace Cossington Smith, whose paintings of the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s construction are almost as iconic as the landmark itself.
An exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, however, allows audiences to re-examine the artists in a broader, international context, presenting their work alongside one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century, the “mother of American Modernism”, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 76.2 cm, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
A collaboration between the Art Gallery of NSW, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism draws parallels between the three artists who, while being exact contemporaries, had little or nothing to do with each other.
Given that there were no personal connections between the artists, what, then, do the three of them have in common?
“They were all born in the late 19th century, and had fairly traditional training to start with, but by, say, the 1910s they had each become in their own way determined modernists,” explains the Art Gallery of NSW’s Denise Mimmocchi, who curated the exhibition with Jason Smith, Lesley Harding from Heide, and Cody Hartley and Carolyn Kastner from the O’Keeffe Museum.
“To live in a culture with all the transitions that the 20th century brought, meant that to be an artist and to respond to the world was to develop a modernist thinking as a painter.”
“They drew from a similar pool of ideas, and in a way that’s the sense of what the show is talking about,” she says. “They are reading the same books, they are looking to the same artists as examples, and they developed from these their own very distinct way of courting the Modernist vision.”
Grace Cossington Smith, The bridge in building, 1929, oil on pulpboard 75 x 53 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Gift of Ellen Waugh 2005 © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith
Even the two Australians, who are often seen as parallel, had no real contact with each other. “Preston and Cossington Smith painted in completely different ways, but they developed these ideas in their own distinct style from these modernist resources,” says Mimmocchi.
The artists came to these ideas through different paths. Preston spent a lot of time in Europe and was exposed to the art of Germany and France but this wasn’t the case for Cossington Smith. “Cossington Smith, even though she went overseas for a few years, claimed she didn’t have any exposure to modern art there – which seems a bit odd,” Mimmocchi says. “It was really through her training in Sydney that she was introduced to the ideas of modern masters.” O’Keeffe also started with very traditional training, studying with Arthur Wesley Dow – who taught Preston.
The ideas of Modernism manifest in different ways across the three artists’ work. “Preston was very much, by the 1920s, interested in the idea of modernist structure and composition and design and colour,” Mimmocchi says. In fact, she argues, that is something that unites all three artists. “They all understood colour as being the primary way of expressing something modern.”
For Mimmocchi, Preston is very much about composition and structure, paired with colour, while Cossington Smith’s work has a different energy. “Cossington Smith became really interested in the idea of the living energies of the unseen world, so she would paint nature as moving, pulsating, alive with some sort of spiritual undercurrent,” she says.
O’Keeffe explored similar ideas but also came to abstraction earlier. “Interestingly her first modern works, were these completely abstracted works,” Mimmocchi explains. “She just looked at forms, trying to express certain things about her feelings, about places, her feelings about herself on particular days in these very enigmatic, abstract forms driven by colour.”
Margaret Rose Preston, Western Australian gum blossom 1928, oil on canvas 55.3 x 46 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Purchased 1978 © Margaret Rose Preston Estate, Photo: AGNSW/Diana Panuccio
The work of all three artists is also very much of their own places. “Both Preston and O’Keeffe were very vocal about wanting to create a modernist art for their own nation, a national culture out of the language of modernism, which becomes one of the defining features of their art towards the end of their careers as well.”
While themes can be drawn across the work, the curators present each artist in a separate section. “We want people to work their way through, experience the work of each artist, and come out of it, having a sense, when you think back, of the connections,” she says. “Once you go through the three sections, the recurrent themes will become apparent,” says Mimmocchi.
With 30 works from Santa Fe, this is a one-of-a-kind exhibition for Australian audiences. “This is the first significant survey of her work out here,” Mimmocchi explains. “She is a name people are familiar with, but they haven’t actually seen her work. They know her maybe for her skull paintings and her flower paintings, but the scope of her work is well beyond that.”
For Mimmocchi, O’Keeffe’s Rams Head, Blue Morning Glory is a highlight, but it’s by no means the only one. “There’s a series of works that she painted at Lake George (she went there annually during the 1920s), there’s a fantastic work based on her experience of running across the lake at night, which is just the most superb work.” The exhibition is also a chance to view familiar works afresh, such as Preston’s Western Australian Gum Blossoms from the AGNSW collection.
And there are a number of Cossington Smith works Mimmocchi is excited about: “Having her Sydney Harbour Bridge paintings together, having a group of her landscapes together including the most fantastic work she painted The Seawave which is just as abstract as she gets,” she says. “The sea coming towards the shore and its abstract pattern and her colouring fusion – it’s really exquisite.”
O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney until October 2.