Audio: Sydney moderns

Find out more about a selection of the artists and artworks in the
exhibition with Andrew Yip, Josephine Touma and Georgina Cole.

1. Grace Cossington Smith The curve of the bridge

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was the greatest feat of interwar industry undertaken in Australia. It not only connected Sydney’s north and south shores but the hopes of a nation in the grips of the Great Depression. Grace Cossington Smith was fascinated by the construction of this modern engineering marvel. She drew it numerous times, and copiously notated her work with observations about colour and form.

In 'The curve of the bridge', nature and industry are unified by the dynamism and rhythm of the artist’s stroke. Viewed from below, the sweep of the bridge provides a platform for the artist to explore formal concerns of light and mass. Tight sets of parallel and perpendicular girders create a strong order that finds echoes in the lumber pile in the bottom left and the geometry of the slope in the foreground. Yet in spite of its solidity the bridge is above all lyrical. Carefully located shafts of light penetrate the girders, adding textural levity.
Cossington Smith believed that form was the most important thing. 'Colour expresses form', she once said. 'And ... colour must have light in it, for our whole creating exists in light'. This work is a testament to that belief.

You can see hints of van Gogh in the graded sky, and Cezanne in the fractured pictorial space. These reveal the influence of the post-impressionist masters, whom Cossington Smith studied in the Sydney studio of Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, alongside fellow students Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin. A number of artists including Wakelin, Jessie Traill, Dorrit Black, Harold Cazneaux and Henri Mallard depicted the construction of the bridge - always with excitement and anticipation, but none with such confidence and vitality as Cossington Smith. A triumphant vision of nation building, her bridge is a secular temple to modernity itself, and the dazzling bravura of the painting is a declaration of her faith in the modern age.

2. Roland Wakelin Down the hills to Berry's Bay

The North Shore of Sydney Harbour has long been a site for artistic experimentation. In the late 19th century, it had been artists painting outdoors - or en plein air - in the tradition of those Australian Impressionists known as the Heidelberg school. A generation later, it was Sydney modernists like Wakelin.

The range of visual effects arising from the play of light on water and landscape provided ample stimulus for experimentations with colour and composition.

Wakelin painted this work partly en plein air at Berry’s Bay, finishing it at a nearby cottage fittingly named ‘Cezanne’, in the present-day suburb of Waverton. The south-easterly view towards the city captures a rising skyline and a train in motion, hinting at rapid urbanisation. The staccato brush strokes, with their discrete juxtapositions of colour, recall the post-impressionist approaches of artists such as Pissarro and Seurat. Wakelin studied in the Sydney studio of Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. Like his fellow students, he became particularly influenced by Cezanne’s landscapes, though in 1916 his understanding of the French master’s breaking of pictorial space was still forming.

In 'Down the hills to Berry’s Bay', Wakelin has not entirely dispensed with naturalistic representation. But the construction of the work is characteristically modern. He reduces landscape features to their essential geometries – shrubs become spherical mounds and grassy knolls turn into planes. He then unites these elements through a carefully-considered colour palette - subtle greens are offset with punctuations of complementary reds. The lyrical upward sweep of the hills in the foreground creates an implied figure of eight with the curve of the bay in the mid ground. This conceptual play prefigures his later experiments with abstraction with Roy de Maistre, and it can be argued that the colour harmonisation seen in this work matured in the breakthrough exhibition 'Colour in art', which he staged with de Maistre in 1919.

3. Roy de Maistre Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor

‘Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor’ is Australia’s earliest known abstract painting and the only surviving work from a series of abstract paintings Roy de Maistre created in 1919 and 1920. As the title implies, it's an attempt to create a synthesis between musical tonalities – quantified in scales and harmonic relationships – and the visual language of painting, with its formal structures of colour palette and geometry.

In this painting sinuous curves interweave and disperse, evoking the sensation of musical lines. The curves are segmented into colour keys that present subtle gradations of tone in a palette that ranges from warm reds and cool purples to green-blue aquas and dashes of yellow. Though they are organic and free-flowing, the curves seem to build in complexity and intensity from the bottom left of the composition to the top right. They're punctuated by two elliptical voids of intense colour – one purple, the other yellow – that might evoke the development and apex of a musical phrase.

‘Rhythmic composition’ reflects de Maistre's interest in the power of colour as a universal language to elicit emotional responses. This interest in synaesthesia had its roots in emerging spiritualist movements such as Theosophy and Anthroposophy as well the colour experiments of European avant-garde artists. De Maistre became particularly interested in colour psychiatry during his service as a medical orderly in the First World War, which brought him into contact with shell-shocked soldiers.

This painting arose from a collaborative project around colour music between de Maistre, fellow artist Roland Wakelin and music and medical student Adrien Verbrugghen. It may well have had a direct musical correlation in Beethoven’s ‘String quartet no 14, op 131’, composed in the key of C# minor, which de Maistre had heard in concert at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Though de Maistre’s practice developed from local experiments with colour, his attempt to use colour as a medium for artistic revolution mirrored the concerns of the international avant-garde, revealing the remarkable cosmopolitanism of Sydney’s modernist movements.

4. Roy de Maistre (Colour music)

'Colour music (piano roll)' visualises the sound of music. The artist - Roy de Maistre - believed that a scientific correlation could be made between colour and music. Pitch could be represented by colour tone. A ‘D’ might be signified in a work by the colour green, with a ‘D flat’ represented by a modulation in that colour: a yellow-green. Variations in the saturation and intensity of colours could stand for rises and falls in volume.

De Maistre painted this abstract geometric work on a five-metre length of piano scroll. A ruled grid suggests a form of musical notation equating to 16 bars of a score. The size, shape and intensity of the divisions represent ascending and descending passages of notes and rhythms. The arrangement of colour patterns suggests the development of musical ideas. A section featuring a diversity of colour swatches evokes multiple lyrical lines, while a profusion of one particular colour suggests the crystallisation of a particular aural theme.

Following de Maistre’s rigid correlation of pitch to colour tone it's likely that hidden in the strict geometry of the work is a direct transliteration of the first 12 bars of Haydn’s ‘Trio in B Flat major’ for keyboard and strings. Specific motifs from Haydn’s piece can be identified in the painting. For example, finely divided colours in bars five and seven are matched by notes ascending two octaves in the Haydn score. However de Maistre occasionally simplified some aural motifs so the transliteration isn't mathematically accurate. The final four bars depart from Haydn’s score and were likely improvised by the artist.

5. Josef Franz Haydn Trio in B flat Major for piano and strings

Audio credit: Josef Franz Haydn, Keyboard Trio No. 20 in B flat Major Hob XV:20, I. Allegro.
Performed by the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt. Courtesy of Capriccio and Select Audio-Visual Distribution

6. Thea Proctor The rose

Thea Proctor’s woodcut print ‘The rose’ was designed for the cover of The Home magazine. Founded in Sydney in 1920, The Home featured a cosmopolitan mix of local and international trends in art, fashion and interiors. As with many magazines of the era, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, it was illustrated by painters, photographers and printmakers - artists who, like Proctor, moved easily between innovative high art and commercial design.

‘The rose’ depicts a simple moment of shared aesthetic pleasure: a woman offers a vivid red rose to another, who closes her eyes and takes in its fragrance. The woman facing us, with her striking, angular features, is thought to be the artist’s cousin, the designer Hera Roberts, who also contributed illustrations to The Home.

The graphic, chiselled lines produced by the woodcut method were suited to the design principles of modernist printmaking. However, Proctor’s parallel lines and intersecting curves are not stark art deco geometry - they're an exotic abundance of varied patterning: the zig-zag pattern that describes the sheen of neatly waved hair, with one loose corkscrew curl, a hint of black and mauve stripes in the background, the flurry of scalloped lines that describe the rose. The closely cropped composition suggests a shallow, flattened space, which gives the print an intimacy appropriate to the sensual subject. The flattened planes are hand-coloured in a vibrant palette of hot reds and pinks, complemented with mauve - a bold use of colour that Proctor also used in interior design.

In 1926 Proctor claimed that the great failing in art instruction in Australia was its absence of instruction in design, as it was not taught in any of the schools in Sydney and Melbourne. She set about correcting this failing, not only by establishing a specialist design class at the Julian Ashton School, but also through her multi-faceted practice. She designed a range of furniture for the David Jones department store and decorated its beauty parlour, painted silk fans and fan-shaped paintings and even devised colour schemes for the Ford Motor Company in Australia. A pioneer of modern design and its teaching, she also founded the Contemporary Art Group with George Lambert in 1926, aiming to encourage young modern artists.

7. Margaret Preston Implement blue

In her 1927 still life ‘Implement blue’, Margaret Preston focused on the clean-cut contours that might have been found on a modern cafe table or kitchen bench. The painting presents the machine-produced wares of the day: a metal jug, a sugar bowl, a glass and three china cups. Their unadorned, geometric forms are set out in a rhythmic arrangement along diagonal lines - all described in an appropriately cool palette dominated by greys, mauves, blues and blacks, against a crisp white field. Lit from behind, these humble objects cast neat elliptical shadows and the reflections in the metal and glass surfaces or the refraction of light through water are described in a series of intersecting curves.

Preston is best-known for her prints and paintings of native Australian flowers, with their organic, exuberant patterning. But this bold design encapsulates the modernist fascination with geometry and colour harmonies for their own sake.

Dedicated to making still lifes throughout her career, Preston called them laboratory tables on which aesthetic problems can be isolated - which explains the popularity of the genre among modern artists. Her comparison of art making with scientific process reminds us of the innovative nature of these modernist experiments with pure form and colour.

Preston named the painting ‘Implement blue’ after a paint colour in the 1926 range produced by the Sydney manufacturer Major Brothers. But the term ‘implement’ also suggests the mechanistic mass production and utilitarian nature of the objects depicted, which are neatly arranged in two, parallel rows - implements on Preston’s metaphorical laboratory table. Their regimented appearance is reinforced by the parallel black and white diagonal bands that contain the top portion of the composition, playing off the painting’s square format. These lines are ambiguous: do they represent the edge of a table or tea tray, or are they the pattern of a modernist table cloth? This is the closest Preston ever came to abstraction, the lines serving a compositional purpose rather than clearly representing anything in particular. But the painting is far from clinical. With its jaunty, diagonal angles, dramatic plays of light and shadow and piquant highlights of orange and yellow, ‘Implement blue’ is one of Preston’s most striking compositions.

8. Grace Cossington Smith The Lacquer Room

Grace Cossington Smith accidentally stumbled on the subject of this artwork while searching for a cup of tea in David Jones department store in Sydney's CBD. The painting depicts an American-style cafe, known as the Soda Fountain, on the store's lower ground floor. It was well known for its green marble table tops and chairs in Chinese-style red lacquer, and the colour and design struck Cossington Smith immediately.

David Jones opened the flagship Elizabeth St store in 1927. With its slick art-deco interiors, exclusive range of couture and consumer goods, and galleries for the exhibition and sale of contemporary art, it soon became a mecca for modern art and design in Sydney.

Using layers of short, vertical and diagonal brushstrokes, Cossington Smith depicts the tea room as a shimmering spectacle of contrasting colours and forms. The patrons, dressed in respectable hats and furs, sip tea, while the green-uniformed staff hover about them. Bodies are reduced to blocky, simplified shapes and the figures are partly obscured behind the complex network of chairs and tables in the foreground. Rather than focusing on the interaction of the people and their stories, Cossington Smith emphasises the taut, linear rhythms and bold colours of modern design. At the same time, she softens the strong geometry of the room with radiating bands of feathery brushstrokes. She has painted the chairs in shifting passages of red and pink and the tabletops in flickering patches of green, white and yellow. Through this emphasis on colour, the space of the room is flattened and the perspective distorted. These unusual spatial qualities suggest the overwhelming sensory effects of this sudden unexpected encounter with modernity.

9. Cecil Bostock Phenomena

'Phenomena’ resembles the tightly-cropped aerial compositions and geometric arrangements found in modernist still lifes. The photograph is dominated by sensuous curved pools of light, and bisected by two sweeping, dark lines, like the ridges of an art deco plate. In the shadows of the lower left corner, a cluster of ambiguous, faintly mechanical objects produces a series of dark ellipses and semi-circles, but none of these mysterious objects can be identified with any certainty. A bright wedge of light, softened at the edges, projects across to the top right corner, like a search light, but its source is unclear. This is a photograph that features the basic ingredients of photography - the phenomena of light and shadow - in a pure, abstracted state. It's so abstracted that the image has even been exhibited upside down.

One of the most inventive photographers of his generation, Cecil Bostock was a founding member of the Sydney Camera Circle in 1916 - one of several groups that emerged in the early 20th century with the aim to revitalise art photography. Like many modern artists, his practice was split between commercial advertising work and a highly experimental personal practice. ‘Phenomena’ was one of 11 photographs Bostock exhibited with the Contemporary Camera Groupe in the windows of the David Jones department store in 1938.

10. Grace Cossington Smith Sea wave

‘Sea wave’ is a modernist interpretation of landscape that represents the rhythmic patterns and luminosity of the sea as successive layers of broken colour. Its unnaturalistic, bruise-coloured palette of mauve, violet, ochre and khaki, cool colours gives the painting a melancholic, almost sickly air. The breaking waves are made up of radiating bands of mosaic-like brushstrokes, sending our eyes in a restless motion over the shimmering, fragmented surface of the work. This sense of disorientation and confusion is reinforced by the treatment of space. Instead of a horizontal, landscape format, the portrait orientation of the canvas creates a sense of compression. The sea looks as though it has been viewed through a fish-eye lens – the curving lines of waves bulge outwards toward us, and the purple horizon line bends upwards into the sky.

Grace Cossington Smith painted ‘Sea wave’ not long after the death of her mother, who had keenly supported her daughter’s professional development as an artist. After the death, the grief-stricken family spent some time at Thirroul on the south coast of New South Wales, where this landscape was painted. Indeed, it’s possible to see the use of colour and spatial distortion in ‘Sea wave’ as expressing complex ideas of loss and continuity. The swelling curves, along with the pulsating rhythms of colour and brushstroke, suggest the relentless, perpetual motion of the sea and the continuous cycles of life and death in nature. While the painting is an exemplary modernist landscape, rhythmic, flattened, and intensely coloured, it also powerfully expresses the ideas of sadness, confusion and isolation that accompany the death of a loved one.

11. Max Dupain Silos through windscreen

In ‘Silos through windscreen’, the photographer Max Dupain uses the driver’s seat of a car as a novel vantage point on the industrialised modern city. The main focus of the image is the concrete grain silos at Pyrmont. This imposing structure in Sydney’s innerwest has operated since 1926 and is a recurring motif in Dupain’s work. In this photograph, it's been incorporated into a complex, multi-dimensional composition. Its simple, monumental verticals are juxtaposed with the curving lines and smooth surfaces of the dashboard, and the rear vision mirror reflects the image of a brick factory behind. This complex interplay between the silos in front, the car interior, and the factory behind creates the sensation that we, the viewers, are surrounded by this industrial landscape. By excluding figures from his photograph, Dupain focuses our attention on the formal qualities of the city; the strong contrasts of light and dark reduce the buildings and the car interior to a series of simple shapes and repeating lines. Here, the shadows and reflections seem as palpable as the objects and buildings themselves. At the top and bottom edges of the composition, the dark horizontal borders give the photograph a cinematic quality; the viewer is playfully positioned in the driver’s seat, immersed in the rhythms and movement of modern life.

Looking back on his formative years as a photographer, Dupain described the 1930s as ‘an era when Australian photographers had begun to apprehend machine form and function and to relate to it not as a first or second cousin, but as a blood brother to the camera’. In its disciplined and precise network of lines and shapes, this photograph exemplifies the developing industrial aesthetic in modern photography. Not only did photographers such as Dupain increasingly look to the city as a subject for their art, but they also saw photography as a distinctly modern art form that combined industry and the machine age with aesthetics.

12. Dorrit Black Nocturne, Wynyard Square

Dorrit Black’s ‘Nocturne, Wynyard Square’ is an eerily empty cityscape cut and printed from a single linoleum block in simple black and white. Exploiting the directness and boldness of the lino cut technique, Black reduced the architecture of this public square in Sydney's CBD to a series of monumental shapes. The darkness of the night crowds in around the buildings, eating away at the sharp silhouette of a Victorian terrace on the left, and creeping into the image through short cuts and stabbing gouges in the right-hand corner. ‘Nocturne’ has a spectral, moonlit quality that comes from the stark contrasts of black and white. Here, the city is given an alienating quality, rendered strange and unfamiliar by the stylised shapes and the lack of figures.

In its combination of strong, elastic shapes and overlapping forms, the print reveals the impact of international forms of cubism on modern Australian art. In 1927 Black trained in London at Claude Flight’s Grosvenor School of Art, and then at the Parisian academy of the prominent cubist Andre Lhote. Lhote encouraged his students to radically simplify their subjects. ‘See nothing in the nude’, he wrote, ‘but the straight lines, the angles, the curves, the tones cold and warm, [and] the … dimensions’. Black incorporated this analytical approach into her work, reinterpreting the city as a sequence of overlapping planes. She also introduced the cubist method into the classes she taught at the Modern Art Centre, which she established and ran briefly from 1932 to 1933. The school was a conduit for the transmission of contemporary ideas from Europe and was an important place in the development of modernism in Sydney in what remained a largely conservative art scene.

13. Eric Wilson Abstract - the kitchen stove

In this cubist artwork by Eric Wilson, the forms, shapes and colours of a humble kitchen stove are splintered, spliced, and superimposed to produce a formally resolved but abstract composition. This work is one of a series of paintings focusing on the stove, which use the visual language and methods of cubism to dissect and investigate form. Here, the sides of the stove, along with the fittings and furnishings of the room, such as brick walls and timber floor, are separated into a number of vertically-oriented planes that collide into a primarily triangular shape in the centre. Strong diagonal lines draw our eyes up to the fragmented form of a tea kettle, which is intersected by neatly spaced pot handles and what seems to be a pair of fried eggs. It was a common strategy for cubist artists to take the familiar objects and spaces of the everyday, domestic world and fragment them into complex, only partially-comprehensible ensembles that better represent the mobile nature of how we see, and the way our perspective constantly shifts.

Wilson came into contact with these methods of abstraction and analysis while studying at the Westminster school in London between 1937 and 1939. On his return to Sydney, he championed abstraction, promoting through his teaching and painting practice, an attention to form, shape, colour and structure. In 1943, the year ‘Abstract – the kitchen stove’ was painted, he claimed: ‘in whatever idiom [is] chosen for expression, plastic values are my main consideration. It is this emphasis on the architectural quality – the orchestration of formal elements into a symphonic whole – that I find most sympathy with in the modern movement’. The low-relief textures, pasted collage elements and compressed picture space of this painting visualise this commitment to abstraction, and reinforce the ‘architectural’ nature of space and form.

14. Ralph Balson Construction in green

In 1941, Ralph Balson exhibited 21 new works at Anthony Horden and Sons' Fine Art Galleries in Sydney. A writer for The Bulletin news magazine responded with this biting critique: ‘Mr Balson specialises in what the arty call ‘the abstract’… [he] produces some very pretty designs for patchwork quilts.’ None of the works sold, nor did the show create more than a ripple in the press, but it is now considered a landmark in the history of Australian art - the first solo exhibition of abstract painting in the country.

Balson called these new works 'constructed paintings' and continued to paint in a similar manner for the next 15 years. ‘Construction in green’ resembles a collage with its overlapping planes but is in fact a hand-painted assemblage of basic flat shapes, all variations on the circle and the square - some opaque, others apparently translucent - shapes that seem to shift between planes, making it hard to tell the foreground from the background. The seemingly random scattering of free-floating forms is in fact carefully balanced: curves are a counterpoint to right angles, diagonals respond to horizontals and verticals, and the whole arrangement is pinned together by two slender white, L-shaped lines, which are turned at a precise diagonal to the corners of the panel. The primary colours of red, blue and yellow are all present, but it's the variety of greens that dominates, softened by salmon pink and grey, and balanced by its complimentary colour, red. Balson had been a housepainter in an era before paints came pre-mixed, and here he demonstrates his ability to create distinctive hues and subtle colour harmonies.

Balson was a student and colleague of Australian artist Grace Crowley and the two worked so closely together in their first moves into pure abstraction that their works bare a close resemblance. Crowley’s studio was lined with reproductions of the first European abstract paintings, by Vassily Kandinsky, Fernand Leger and Piet Mondrian - all of which had a strong impact on Balson, who cited the Dutch Mondrian as his greatest single influence.

15. Frank Hinder Subway escalator

A surge of colour and light in movement embodies the speed of modern urban life in Frank Hinder’s ‘Subway escalator’. Although dated 1953, this painting was part a series that Hinder began before World War II, based on Sydney’s Wynyard train station. The first stations of the city circle line had opened in 1926, liberating movement around the ever-expanding central city.

In this painting, rather than focussing on the trains themselves, Hinder captures the effects of another modern machine: the escalator that conveyed Sydneysiders to the subterranean network. The mass of blues, interspersed with flashes of yellow light, represents a rushing crowd of anonymous commuters, as if they were one force of energy, but composed of splintered shapes - an effect that recalls the refraction of a prism.

This style of fragmentation, repetition and flickering light effects to suggest speed were all features of Futurism, the art movement begun in Italy in 1909. Hinder first encountered Futurism, along with cubism and other modernist art movements, while studying in America in the 1920s and 30s. The Futurists used motifs of modern transportation - aeroplanes, cars and trains - to convey the phenomena of speed and movement. Their manifesto described the burgeoning modern subway networks as ‘greedy stations devouring smoking serpents’.

While in the US, Hinder also embraced Jay Hambidge’s theory of dynamic symmetry, which proposed a system of proportions underlying all living things in movement and growth. This universalism had a profound effect on Hinder, who said, ‘If you can link into the actual so-called life rhythm in your work then I think you are getting a little bit closer to the universal, whatever-it-is, that makes us tick.’