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By the end of World War I in 1918, Australia was one of the most urbanised nations in the world. Sydney, the country’s largest and fastest growing city, was rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan metropolis. Between the 1910s and 30s, it was significantly reshaped: new architectural monuments changed its appearance, department stores altered patterns of consumption, apartment blocks rearranged domestic life, and a subway network moved transport underground.

Rising above the developing city, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with its powerful network of steel girders and tapering arch, epitomised the ambitions of modernity. Constructed between 1923 and 1932, it connected the northern and southern shores of the harbour and was the greatest feat of interwar industry undertaken in Australia.

With its light-filled harbour and thriving commercial centre, Sydney was fertile ground for the development of modern art. The ‘Sydney moderns’ were artists who applied new international theories of colour and composition to the representation of their changing environment. They took modernity as their subject, from cityscapes and factories to department stores and apartment blocks, embracing the new rhythms of life. In their encounters with modernity, modernism and the global style moderne (or art deco), the Sydney moderns developed new visual languages driven by colour and bold design to express life in a new world.

Questions and activities

  • Imagine you have to design a tourism campaign for the city of Sydney in the 1930s highlighting sites of historical interest and the city’s attractions. Research the places you choose, list what makes them interesting and explain why people should visit them when they are holidaying in Sydney. Create a PowerPoint to present your ideas and choose one site to lead the campaign.
  • Create a body of work based on the city of Sydney. What structures best represent the city today? Is the Sydney Harbour Bridge still an important symbol of the city? How has society changed and has this affected the urban landscape? Do we have the same attitudes toward modernisation? What are the consequences for Sydneysiders today of the early 20th-century hunger for urbanisation? Respond to these considerations visually in your interpretation of Sydney.
  • Research Sydney modernism. Using specific artists and works from the exhibition, identify examples of 'new visual languages’ and explain how these resulted from the artists’ 'encounters with modernity, modernism and the global style moderne’. Do you think these artists were successful in reflecting life in a new age?