t Sets. 20th-century Australian art: Modern impressions
By the Art Gallery of NSW
Printmaking has been an important and respected art form in Australia since the late 19th century, with painters such as Tom Roberts and Julian Ashton making etchings as a small, but significant, part of their practice.
The first decades of the 20th century saw enormous technological and cultural change, and as Australian society transitioned into the modern era, so did the work of many artists. Australian artists were exposed to international developments in art through publications and from peers returning from studying abroad. Previous barriers between the realms of fine art, craft and design were gradually dissolved and nowhere was this more apparent than in printmaking.
Seeking to capture the spirit of the new age, printmakers sought new ways of expressing values that were reshaping the cities and towns. Speed, colour, design and above all a desire for the ‘new’ galvanised a new generation of artists, many of them women, into creating prints that were unlike anything seen before in this country.
This selection of works from the Gallery’s collection of modern Australian prints reveals a number of common threads: the aesthetics of the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print, the teachings of British printmaker Claude Flight, and the graphic traditions of Europe.
AGNSW collection Dorrit Black Naval funeral circa 1945
AGNSW collection Dorrit Black Elizabeth Street, Sydney 1939
Dorrit Black briefly studied in Adelaide before moving to Sydney in 1915. During the 1920s she became increasingly focused on ‘modernising’ her practice and in 1927 she left for Europe in order to acquire ‘a definite understanding of the aims and methods of the modern movement and in particular, the cubists’.
In London she studied at Claude Flight’s Grosvenor School, making her first colour linocuts. The following year she travelled to Europe, studying with Andre Lhote in Paris and later with cubist painter Albert Gleizes, before returning to Sydney in 1929. She held her first solo exhibition in Sydney at the Macquarie Galleries, exhibiting works that declared the cubist-inspired aesthetics she had developed while overseas.
This view is from Elizabeth Street facing north towards St James Road as it curves towards Queens Square. Several of the structures in this image are visible today, including the spire of St James Church, King Street courts and the heavy foliage of a Moreton Bay fig in Hyde Park. Black reduced these forms to very basic geometric shapes in a compressed picture plane, influenced by the principles of cubism.
AGNSW collection Dorrit Black Music 1927-1928
AGNSW collection Dorrit Black Black boys post 1938
AGNSW collection Dorrit Black Study for 'Nocturne, Wynyard Square' 1932
AGNSW collection Dorrit Black Nocturne, Wynyard Square 1932
This starkly graphic linocut presents the view at night from Dorrit Black’s Sydney art school, the Modern Art Centre, in Margaret Street, which she operated from 1932 to 1935. The starkly reduced architectural forms reflect the influence of cubism, which Black had studied in France under Andre Lhote and Albert Gleizes, while the strong contrasts of black and white emphasise transformation of the city at night, lit only by streetlights or the moon. Black also exhibited this print under the title
Reconstructions, Wynyard Square, which explains the diagonal crane form in the centre of the image.
This print was reproduced in Harry Tatlock Miller’s modernist literary and art journal
Manuscripts in November 1932. Exhibited nearby are the preparatory pencil drawing and lino block used in its printing.
AGNSW collection Vera Blackburn Still life 1933
AGNSW collection Dorrit Black Block for 'Nocturne, Wynyard Square' 1932
AGNSW collection attrib. Ailsa Lee Brown (The new bridge) 1935-1936
Ailsa Lee Brown was born in Sydney and studied under Thea Proctor and Adelaide Perry at the Julian Ashton Art School. Her prints emphasised design, surface patterning, flattened forms and decorative detail, typical of Sydney modernism at the time. Brown abandoned linocuts in favour of wood engravings in 1936, making several in the late 1930s.
This is a rare industrial subject for the artist; her focus is on the construction workers and their equipment, the print displaying her command of modernist design principles in the utilisation of compositional devices such as strong diagonals, and hatching to create volume and tone.
AGNSW collection Vera Blackburn Lake of swans 1935
Vera Blackburn grew up in an art-loving family in Sydney and first made linocuts under the direction of Thea Proctor, and later at Adelaide Perry’s art school.
This image was inspired by a passage in Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet
Swan Lake as well as an Irish legend, the Children of Lir, in which children were transformed into swans.
AGNSW collection Vera Blackburn Pattern 1936
AGNSW collection Ailsa Lee Brown Sydney trams 1927
AGNSW collection Ailsa Lee Brown Work for the new bridge 1937
AGNSW collection Ailsa Lee Brown Dressmakers 1937
AGNSW collection Adrian Feint The goddess and the aspidistra 1934
Best remembered for his elegant and witty montages of domestic objects and flowers in quasi-surreal still-life paintings, Adrian Feint was also a designer, printmaker and illustrator, creating covers for
Art in Australia and The Home magazines and an important body of bookplates.
Feint first exhibited woodcuts and wood engravings while a student of Thea Proctor in the late 1920s. He made two versions of this image; the Gallery has the key (black) and colour blocks for another version that is slightly larger in size, which has a few small differences in the image. The sculpture depicted is a bronze Shiva - a Hindu god, rather than the ‘goddess’ of the title.
The print echoes the self-consciously tasteful imagery of Proctor’s eclectic still-life compositions, although it was made several years after Feint and Proctor quarrelled and may be a barbed commentary on her work, rather than a respectful homage.
AGNSW collection Paul Haefliger Lyrebird 1934
Paul Haefliger arrived in Sydney as a teenager with his family and studied at the Julian Ashton Art School in the 1930s, before travelling to London where he studied with British modernist painters Bernard Meninsky and Mark Gertler. He was a lifelong supporter of modernism in Australia through his work as an artist and critic.
Lyrebird was made before he left Sydney for Europe and reveals the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints in its elegant design, compressed picture plane and colouring. Haefliger made a small number of other prints in the Japanese manner, including Kusatsu hot springs, Japan 1932 and a self-portrait Paul 1935, both in the National Gallery of Australia collection.
AGNSW collection Weaver Hawkins Mother and child 1928
AGNSW collection Nora Heysen Pines, The Cedars, Hahndorf 1932
AGNSW collection Ethleen Palmer Study for 'Burnt out circa 1952
AGNSW collection Ethleen Palmer Granite peaks 1938
Ethleen Palmer studied at East Sydney Technical College and began experimenting with relief printmaking in 1933. She was influenced by Japanese prints and the work of Austrian artist Norbertine Bresslern-Roth, whose work was shown in Sydney in the mid 1920s.
Palmer exhibited her first prints in 1933 at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Sydney, and continued to experiment with techniques throughout the decade. In the late 1940s she was one of the first Australian artists to experiment with screen prints, some of which are reproduced here.
AGNSW collection Ethleen Palmer Burnt out 1952
AGNSW collection Ethleen Palmer The house with the orange door 1949
AGNSW collection Ethleen Palmer The burnt hill 1940
AGNSW collection Adelaide Perry The Bridge, October 1929 1930
Adelaide Perry was a key figure in the promotion of linocut in Sydney in the 1920s. Her works were characterised by strong, rhythmic design and sharp graphic contrasts of black and white. A respected and popular teacher, she taught many artists how to make linocuts, first at the Julian Ashton Art School and later at her own school, established in Bridge Street in 1933.
This is the largest of Perry’s linocuts and shows the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. The sky, harbour and foreground trees surge with the same energy as the passing ferries, echoing the dynamic curves of the bridge. This engineering marvel was fascinating to many of her contemporaries, who saw in it the embodiment of modern industrial progress.
AGNSW collection Adelaide Perry Kurrajong (The citrus orchard) circa 1929
AGNSW collection Adelaide Perry Kirribilli - study for a linocut circa 1929
AGNSW collection Adelaide Perry St. Stephens, Philip St. circa 1928
AGNSW collection Adelaide Perry South coast 1930
AGNSW collection Adelaide Perry Kirribilli (The little steamer) circa 1929
AGNSW collection Mabel Pye Untitled 1939
AGNSW collection Mabel Pye Spring morning 1930s
AGNSW collection Mabel Pye Reflections
AGNSW collection Mabel Pye Bushfire 1930s
AGNSW collection Ethel Spowers Swings 1932
Ethel Spowers came from a wealthy Mebourne family, affording her the opportunity for regular travel to Europe for leisure and study. She was among a small group of artists instrumental in promoting the modern colour linocut in Australia in the 1930s, having studied the medium in Europe.
Spowers’ first colour prints were made in the Japanese manner, brushing ink on the block so it printed with a painterly texture. In 1928 she enrolled at Claude Flight’s Grosvenor School in London, which signalled a change in her work; her colours became lighter, her forms more rhythmical and repetitive. Her subjects were taken from everyday life, including children at play and crowded city streets.
Upon her return to Australia, Spowers acted as Claude Flight’s agent and, with Dorrit Black and Eveline Syme, promoted his work and teachings through a number of exhibitions, especially in Melbourne.
AGNSW collection Ethel Spowers Wet afternoon 1929-1930
AGNSW collection Ethel Spowers The plough 1929
AGNSW collection Eveline Syme Sydney tram line 1936
Eveline Syme studied art in Paris in the early 1920s, including at Andre Lhote’s school in Montparnasse, where she learnt the principles of cubism. She began making colour linocuts in 1927, taught by her friend and contemporary Ethel Spowers. She enrolled at Claude Flight’s Grosvenor School in London after reading his publication Lino-cuts (1927), of which she later wrote: *Here was something new and different… I had seen nothing more vital and essentially ‘modern’ in the best sense of the word than the reproductions shown. *
This classic image of a tram wending its way through the streets of Sydney shows the influence of Japanese woodblock prints, in its compositional flatness and high viewpoint.
AGNSW collection Ethel Spowers Special edition 1936
AGNSW collection Ethel Spowers Resting models 1934
AGNSW collection Frank Weitzel Abstract design 2 circa 1932
AGNSW collection Frank Weitzel Abstract design 1 circa 1932
New Zealander Frank Weitzel arrived in Sydney in the late 1920s after studying variously in San Francisco, New York and Munich. He quickly gained a reputation with the local avant-garde for his sculpture, linocuts, textile and furniture design; his short time in Sydney had a disproportionate influence on the development of local modernism. Weitzel made a number of strongly graphic linocuts of urban subjects while living here including the Harbour Bridge, inner-city streets and slums.
Weitzel was ‘warmly supported’ by Dorrit Black, who is thought to have introduced him to Claude Flight, with whom he was studying by 1930. It was at Flight’s Grosvenor School that Weitzel extended his printmaking into multiple block colour prints, including this work and its companion
Abstract design 2. Both reveal the influence of futurism and cubism and the tragic promise of a young artist, cut off through his untimely death in 1932.
AGNSW collection Eveline Syme Skating circa 1930