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Landscapes of modernity

While city life was a central preoccupation of the Sydney moderns, they also upheld Australia’s dominant genre of artistic creation, landscape. According to the prominent critic Sydney Ure Smith, the Australian landscape readily lent itself to a modern approach: ‘It is severe in form and outline, uncompromising in colour and geological contour.’

Australian artists had traditionally expressed ideas about nationhood and cultural identity through landscape, but modern painters and printmakers such as Grace Cossington Smith, Dorrit Black, Elioth Gruner and Roland Wakelin emphasised its dynamism and rhythmic structure.

Influenced by Cézanne’s planar, colouristic approach to landscape, or by ‘decorative’ (or design-oriented) compositions, modern artists compressed space and simplified natural forms into flat planes described in heightened or simplified colour. Many modernist landscapes reveal the impact of car and plane travel, which significantly altered the experience of the landscape.

Questions and activities

  • Look at examples of modernist landscapes in the exhibition. Discuss the different styles and the use of exaggerated colours, patterns and shapes. Create your own landscape painting by simplifying shapes, thinking carefully about the colours you use.
  • Compare the modernist approach to landscape with more traditional colonial and Australian impressionist depictions. Write a list of words and phrases that describe each approach. Decipher how attitudes to the land and identity changed from the early 19th to the early 20th century.
  • What types of landscapes were modernist artists drawn too? How did these landscapes satisfy their need to explore modernity? Why did car and plane travel significantly alter the experience of the landscape and the interpretation of the real?