It is close to 40 years since Dorrit Black’s contribution to the story of Australian art was last assessed.
Ian North’s monograph, The Art of Dorrit Black, appeared in 1979, four years after Professor North (then Curator of Paintings at the Art Gallery of South Australia) had assembled the artist’s first major museum retrospective. Another Art Gallery curator, Jane Hylton, in her 1989 exhibition (and publication) ADELAIDE ANGRIES: South Australian painting of the 1940s highlighted Black’s key role in the promotion and consolidation of modernism within the Adelaide art community. More recently Black’s best-known painting, The olive grove, was included in the National Gallery of Australia exhibition Australia, presented at the Royal Academy of Arts, London 2013. Despite this, Black’s contribution to the cause of modern art in Australia and thevisual authority of her own art practice has remained unknown or underestimated. Maybe it’s an Adelaide thing, the double-hit of local indifference and an eastern seaboard belief that nothing of real cultural interest occurs west of Ballarat. The most likely explanation is that there are simply not enough Dorrit Blacks in public collections. The considerable number of relief prints in public collections across Australia, being on paper, are never on regular display. Her painting Mirmande (acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1940) was the only oil painting to be purchased by a public institution in her lifetime. Many of her paintings remain in private hands and inaccessible to the general public. That’s the reality. No show. No know. If the evolving story of Australian modernism is a kind of jigsaw puzzle, then Dorrit Black has remained the key missing piece. Somehow it fell down between the lounge cushions. On the strength of her national prominence as an advocate and artist and her first-hand overseas encounters with mid-war modernist trends, Black deserved to remain front and centre. As a self-conscious creature of the ‘modern age’ she embraced the idea that the artist’s role was to reveal to society a new outlook on life. Her search for progressive artistic ideas led to her to undertake studies, in 1927, at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, London, where she was inspired by the leading linocut printmaker Claude Flight. The attraction of European modernism then took her to Paris to study forms of analytical painting at André Lhote’s Académie in Montparnasse, then at Lhote’s summer school in Mirmande in southeastern France. Back in Australia and Sydney in 1929, Black set about establishing the Modern Art Centre, which opened for business in 1931. In doing so she became the fi rst woman to run an art gallery in Australia. The Modern Art Centre (MAC) was the first art institution in Australia to have the word ‘modern’ in its title. Curator of Dorrit Black: unseen forces, Tracey Lock-Weir, notes with satisfaction that the advertised aims of today’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Circular Quay mirror those of the MAC over 80 years earlier. Then destiny intervened. Family commitments brought her permanently back to Adelaide in 1935. Here she became an advocate for modern art, particularly by being closely involved in the formation of the Contemporary Art Society in South Australia. In 1940 Black secured a teaching position at the South Australian School of Art and in that capacity inspired a generation of younger artists including Ruth Tuck, Jacqueline Hick and Jeffrey Smart. A tragic car accident in 1951 took her life and robbed the community of the full flowering of her talents. The compelling story of Dorrit Black as an artist, traveller, champion of modernism and foe of conservatism, social activist, theatre designer, inspiring teacher and ‘godmother’ for an emerging generation of artists is recounted in the accompanying publication in extensive detail and with passion by Tracey Lock-Weir and by Elle Freak who contributes an essay on Black’s linocuts. Of particular interest is the inclusion of key texts (letters and poems) that offer glimpses into the artist’s more private thoughts and values, and the flawed relationship between Black and Sydney modernist Grace Crowley, which implies that Black’s disappearing act from the ‘modernism in Australia’ narrative had agendas. The art, in the final analysis, is the heart of the matter. Be prepared to delight in the free spirit of the many linocuts. Assess for yourself the courage of an artist who turned her back on an all-too-easy slide from analytical formalism to abstraction. Consider her very wide-ranging travel and work across South Australia. Brace yourself for the visceral impact of the later works. When discussing these, Lock-Weir talks of an ‘awkward beauty’ and rightly so. The sculptural character of these later works, their dark tones, textured surfaces and uncompromising broad-brush statements challenged audiences then and I suspect will continue to do so. Speculation time. Had Black lived and worked another 10 to 15 years it is possible to imagine that the integrity of her studio practice and her deep sense of connection with the land would have claimed the imagination of new generations of artists and viewing public. For now, sustained by this richly researched and illustrated publication and the rare opportunity to see a lifetime’s work gathered together, we should be very thankful for what we’ve got. ‘Godmother’? My vote is for patron saint. Dorrit Black: unseen forces Art Gallery of South Australia Saturday, June 14 to Sunday, September 7 artgallery.sa.gov.au
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