O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism celebrates the work of three pioneering artists of international modernism: American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and Australian artists Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith.
Making Modernism the exhibition
Coming of age during a time of great social and cultural transition in the 1910s and ’20s, O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith were kindred spirits, rejecting the artistic conventions of the past and forging new ways of picturing the changing world. Seeking to express the unique qualities of their own countries and their own experiences, the contributions of these artists show the shared contours of American and Australian art histories, while revealing the broader story of modernism’s evolution around the world. It was a desire to draw attention to this rich international exchange that brought the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Heide Museum of Modern Art and the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art together in partnership with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and the exhibition developed out of intensive discussion and research between the collaborating curators. The project is the very first presentation of a major body of work by Georgia O’Keeffe in Australia, as well as an opportunity for audiences to view the works of Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith with fresh perspectives and in the context of modernism internationally.
Distinct and influential modernists
'Too often, calling these artists “great Australian artists” or a “great American artist” casts a slightly pejorative shade, minimising their importance, much as calling them “great women artists” imposes an unnecessary distinction. As O’Keeffe herself remarked, “the men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters” … To be explicit, O’Keeffe, Preston, and Cossington Smith were not chosen for this exhibition because they are women, but because they are among the most distinct and influential modernists in their respective nations … [But] it would be disingenuous not to recognise that their experiences speak powerfully of the determination of women artists everywhere who have refused to accept conventional limitations – be they artistic or social.’ - Cody Hartley, Senior Director, Collections and Interpretation, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
I had been taught to work like others and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done, I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught – not like what I had seen – shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and to start to say the things that were my own. – Georgia O’Keeffe
Alfred Stieglitz, 'Georgia O’Keeffe at ‘291’ in front of her charcoal ‘No. 15 Special’’, 1917
When I’m painting flowers I‘ll pull one of its kind to pieces. I will know exactly how it’s formed. When I’ve done this I draw from another one – I do this with all my flowers. I make studies of them. I then put the studies entirely away from me and make my compositions. – Margaret Preston
Margaret Preston, 'Self Portrait’, 1930
The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning … will provide the soil in which a monumental work of art must come into fruition – Wassily Kandinsky 1910–11
Grace Cossington Smith, 'Study of a Head: Self-Portrait’, 1916
All creative art must rise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place. – D.H. Lawrence, 1923
Georgia O’Keeffe, 'Blue Line’, 1919