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While many of Sydney’s modern artists remained committed to representations of reality, others moved into pure abstraction in the 1940s. Margel and Frank Hinder, Grace Crowley and Ralph Balson all pursued non-objective art, looking beyond outward appearances to spiritual and universal forms. They believed abstraction allowed access to a deeper reality.

Balson’s 1941 exhibition of purely abstract paintings announced a new era of modernism in Australian art; one shaped by the profound changes which came to Australian society with World War II and the impact of surrealism. Colour and rhythmic construction, which had characterised the works of the Sydney moderns over the previous decades, became the very subjects of painting. Balson’s radical works also signalled the diverse forms of abstraction that continued to emerge throughout the country over subsequent decades.

Questions and activities

  • Abstraction in its simplest form means an artwork that does not depict a person, place or thing that is recognisable. Look at artworks in the exhibition that fit this definition. Do you like them? Why or why not? Can abstract art tell a story? Do you think all art should tell stories? Debate these ideas in class.
  • How do you think audiences of the time may have reacted to abstraction? How do you personally respond to abstraction? What do you think artists are trying to achieve by eliminating representational reality? Can you see the relevance of this approach? Discuss.
  • Research the changes that came to Australian society with World War II. How did they impact art and artists in this country? Can you see evidence of this in the works in the Sydney moderns exhibition? Use specific examples in your argument.