'Victors' and 'Victims'?: Men, Women, Modernism and Art in Australia

Article excerpt

It is relatively easy to misread the history of artistic modernism in Australia. Glance at a handful of key sources, and they all seem to tell the story of a battle: in the years between the two world wars the Australian art establishment was run by a band of big bad traditionalists--art historian Bernard Smith likens them to the priests of Leviticus--who were at first irritated and later seriously threatened by a bunch of critical young innovators. The story of the emergence of modern art in Australia seems to be about the victory of the innovators. It is something of an historical trope that 'it is the victors who write history'. (1) Four key art histories in one way or another present this story of victory: Australian Painting by Bernard Smith; Rebels and Precursors by Richard Haese; The Innovators by Geoffrey Dutton; and The Black Swan of Trespass by Humphrey McQueen. (2) In the victory story, women modernists appear as marginal.

Bernard Smith used the descriptive periodisations of Genesis and Exodus in his earliest contribution to Australian art history, Place, Taste and Tradition (1944). Borrowing the terms from William Moore's The Story of Australian Art (1934), Smith applied Genesis to his discussion of the years prior to 1900, and Exodus to the years thereafter. In the book, Australian Painting, first published in 1962, Smith expanded on the Genesis-Exodus model, naming the 1920s 'the Leviticus'. He argued that after the first world war 'the old men of the tribe, their years of exile over, began to lay down the law for the guidance of the young'. (3) Their chief objective entailed the protection of the health, sanity and vitality of Australian art from the 'madness' of Europe. The Leviticus in this case consisted of the matured male bohemian contemporaries and admirers of the plein-airists of the Heidelberg era. In their day the Heidelberg painters were regarded as innovative and modern. But many of the Leviticans were in fact black and white artists or realists who mellowed with time and eventually became art critics, publishers, and trustees. They spoke of an Australian nationalist landscape tradition, and pointed to the hazy landscapes of Arthur Streeton and the gum trees of Hans Heysen as prime examples. (4)

The law-making of Leviticus coincided with the emergence in Sydney of a small group of artists who, following European trends, experimented with a range of stylistic and technical innovations collectively thought of by many as modern art. Norah Simpson, a student under the Italian painter Dattilo Rubbo, returned from Europe in 1913 with some reproductions and print material that inspired fellow students Roland Wakelin, Grace Cossington Smith and Roy de Maistre to privately experiment with post-impressionist ideas over the next few years. Cossington Smith (5) and Wakelin first exhibited products of this new direction in the Royal Art Society exhibition in 1915. By the 1920s, a few more artists had begun to experiment with modern aesthetic ideas, many women among them. Bernard Smith observed the prominence of women in the introduction of post-impressionism and in the evolution of 'liberal and progressive thought in the arts'. (6) Feminists have hotly contested his explanation that this occurred because the first world war drained masculine creativity. Whatever the reason, in 1926, Thea Proctor and George Lambert formed the Sydney Contemporary Group with a large proportion of modernist women artists. Grace Crowley and Dorrit Black opened the Modern Art Centre in 1932. In the same year Melbourne art teachers George Bell and Arnold Shore formed a Melbourne Contemporary Group.

In the political and economic uncertainty of the early 1930s, the modernist movement gained sufficient scale in numbers, as well as enthusiastic support, to provoke the established priests of the Leviticus, and those educated in the laws of Leviticus, to belligerence. By the late 1930s these tensions erupted in a series of crises in the Melbourne and Sydney art worlds. …