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Inside the 20th-century galleries

Explore the themes in our 20th-century galleries and some of the artworks you’ll encounter.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, works from our collections of Australian and international art are united as never before in the 20th-century galleries, across two remodelled floors.

The ground-level galleries give special emphasis to the development of modernism in Australia, while the galleries on lower level 1 tell a broader, more international story, but through a local lens.

A watercolour painting of a waterhole among rocks, trees and hills

Albert Namatjira Palm Valley 1940s Art Gallery of New South Wales © Namatjira Legacy Trust. Copyright Agency

Works by Aboriginal Australian artists emerge throughout the galleries as crucial catalysts, helping to reframe Australian history and its global connections, its deep past and its complex manifold futures, and allowing for overlapping and different concepts of time.

Important connections are made between different works and ideas, including our human interaction with the natural world; female labour and craft practices; questions of identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity); migration in a century of international exchange; and Australian artists as international, outward looking and cosmopolitan.

A painting of various forms in black, red, yellow and blue

Gordon Bennett Home décor (after M Preston) #18 2012, Art Gallery of New South Wales © The Estate of Gordon Bennett

An abstract painting in red, yellow and brown tones

Margaret Preston Aboriginal glyph c1958, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Margaret Rose Preston Estate / Copyright Agency

Various rectangular shapes and lines in different colours

Grace Crowley (Abstract painting) 1950, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Reproduced with permission of Grace Crowley Estate

An abstract painting featuring various forms and lines in black, grey and mustard in which an image of a glass is discernible

Georges Braque Glass of absinthe 1911, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Estate of Georges Braque / ADAGP. Copyright Agency

A cubist painting of a seated woman next to a small table

Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska (Marevna) Deux personnages assis (Intimité) c1915–c1917, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Marie Vorobieff / ADAGP. Copyright Agency

Highlights include Indigenous works of historical significance: watercolours by Albert Namatjira, a 1950 bark by Yolngu leader Tom Djäwa, the Pukumani grave posts created by Tiwi artists for the Art Gallery in 1958, and a 1977 work by seminal Papunya artist Kaapa Tjampitjinpa. Later works of Aboriginal resistance include powerful pieces by Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Gordon Bennett and Brenda L Croft.

The revolutionary 20th-century artistic language of colour abstraction is seen in works by Australian artists Roland Wakelin and Grace Crowley and Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. These are joined by leading women modernists Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington-Smith, Marevna and Dorrit Black, who is shown alongside her French cubist teacher André Lhote.

Other major moderns on display include Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, while icons of Australian art not to be missed include Russell Drysdale, Rosalie Gascoigne, Tracey Moffatt and Sidney Nolan.

A colourful three-panelled work with a pattern of curves

Frank Stella Khurasan Gate variation II from the series Protractor 1970, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Frank Stella / ARS. Copyright Agency

A person stands thigh-deep in the ocean carrying another person in their arms

Hoda Afshar Remain 2018 (video still), Art Gallery of New South Wales © Hoda Afshar

A person wearing dark clothing with bare legs sits smoking a cigarette

Cindy Sherman Untitled #113 1982 Art Gallery of New South Wales © Courtesy Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures

A person's head among a dense cluster of yellow balloons

Martin Creed Work no. 2821 2017, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Martin Creed/DACS. Copyright Agency

Dozens of rounded stones of similar size suspended by strings in a tight grouping above the floor

Ken Unsworth Suspended stone circle II 197477, 1988, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Ken Unsworth

Later works continue the investigation of abstract colour – including a masterwork by American Frank Stella, and a dazzling contemporary installation by Australian Nike Savvas – while pop explodes in works by Americans Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Corita Kent, and in earlier kinetic pieces by locals Frank and Margel Hinder.

Yosl Bergner, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Danila Vassilieff and others begin migration stories that continue through the works of Lebanese-English artist Mona Hatoum and contemporary Iranian-Australian Hoda Afshar. Leading feminist artists are here too, from Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago to Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman and Julie Rrap.

Extremes of human emotion are explored by artists Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Käthe Kollwitz and Alberto Giacometti; Brett Whiteley’s Woman in bath 1963–64 meets Francis Bacon’s Study for self-portrait in an extension of that theme.

A spectacular interactive work never before staged at the Art Gallery, by Scottish artist Martin Creed, will uplift all comers, while a crowd favourite reappears in Sydney sculptor Ken Unsworth’s Suspended stone circle II 1974–77, 1988, thanks to a restoration of this wing of the building, originally constructed in the 1970s, which returns this space to its full height.