Current Issue #488

Making Modernism: O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith

Making Modernism: O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Household names Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith tag team for the first time with American art legend Georgia O’Keeffe.

This exhibition is in fact the first presentation of a major body of work by O’Keeffe in Australia. It is a historical fact that Preston and Grace Cossington Smith’s paths rarely crossed and O’Keeffe apparently had no knowledge of events or artists experimenting with modernism in Australia. So this is a fit-up based upon a broad range of commonalities and kinships.

On this basis, the exhibition might have become another exercise in curatorial panache but there are two saving graces. The association encourages the viewer to look at modernism through a differentset of lenses that that provided by the mainstream narrative of Post Impressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism and so on.

These lenses are emphatically regional in the sense that all three artists regarded working in a modernist style as necessary to give full expression to specific and local senses of place.

Making Modernism Exhibition
Grace Cossington Smith, Landscape at Pentecost – 1929

Complementing this is the consequence of playing a spotlight onto less celebrated and known manifestations of modernism as a global movement. So, no Virginia, it wasn’t all multi-coloured triangles and circles preaching abstraction to the masses. The modernism that these three artists and others espoused was based on perceptions of the visual world.

The undeniable kinship that can be traced between them is a desire to render the observed world in symbolic or metaphysical terms. The question then arises – how distinctive is the work and visual imagination of these three ‘regionalists’ compare to their European counterparts of the early to mid 20th century era? That’s not readily
answered but one to tuck into the back of the head while viewing the exhibition.

Making Modernism
Georgia O’Keeffe, Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory – 1938

It introduces that old centre vs periphery question which if asked intelligently has the capacity to refresh or update an appreciation of what was achieved. With Preston and Cossington Smith, this is particularly relevant if only for the fact they are household names and everyone knows some works by them be it Smith’s Sydney Harbour Bridge series or Preston’s still lifes.

But this exhibition is not a casual flick through of some coffee-table book but a significant assembly of key works by both artists representing all major phases of development.

The Cossington Smith selection of around 30 works begins with that remarkable student work the Sock Knitter of 1915, tracks across the dark toned city subjects and through a number of still lifes, Harbour Bridge depictions, Pentecost and other landscapes, and late interiors to encompass a fiercely independent and innovative studio practice that pulsates with energy and conviction every step of the way. 

The Preston selection, also of around 30 works, is heavy on still lifes from the exuberant  floral subjects from around 1915 to the later 1920s and the the bare-boned, muscular
renditions as seen in the ever-remarkable Implement Blue of 1927, the visual detonation of
Aboriginal Flowers, 1928 and the totemic floral studies of the early 1930s.

Margaret Preston, Aboriginal Flowers – 1928

Preston’s fusion of observed and enculturated Australian landscape is well represented by iconic works including Aboriginal Landscape, 1941 and Flying Over the Shoalhaven River, 1942.

On this quality and range of these 60 odd works alone, this exhibition should definitely be on the don’t-miss list. Then throw in Georgia O’Keeffe.

Making Modernism: O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Until Sunday, February 19

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