A new world for the making
‘O’Keefe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism’ brings together three giants of modernism
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When you think about it, where else would you look for modernism in Australia but the suburbs? Where the bitumen meets the bush? Heide Museum of Modern Art, on a sloping hill in the suburban sprawl north-east of Melbourne, has nurtured Australia’s tenuous grasp on modernist art since John and Sunday Reid settled there in 1934. A cradle for artistic experimentation set in a garden, and only 20 minutes along a freeway from the CBD, Heide is one of Australia’s liveliest art museums.
Its ambitions are larger than its modest size. This year’s summer exhibition, O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism, is a succinct statement in only 90 works about the global reach of modernism in the early 20th century, and the artistic experiments found in many locations – in this case New Mexico and Sydney’s suburbs – where artists struggled to articulate the profound challenges of the new century. Making Modernism explores that urgent moment through 30-work portfolios that encapsulate the achievements of three artists: the American Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), and the heroines of Australian modernism Margaret Preston (1875–1963) and Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984). It’s wonderful to see a good number of works by O’Keeffe, but equally rewarding to revisit Preston and Cossington Smith. It’s been a decade since they were seen in any depth, in the great retrospectives of 2004–06.
Making Modernism is a bold proposition. These three takes on modernist art are emphatically different: O’Keeffe’s will to simplify, to extract and abstract; Preston’s energetic hybridity in search of a national modern idiom, and her recognition of the centrality of Aboriginal culture; Cossington Smith’s ecstatic views of everyday life. The largeness of each woman’s distinct vision is striking; each has dedicated rooms, so there are no glib juxtapositions. What emerges, instead, is a strong sense of the quiddity of each body of work: look at Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory (1938) for O’Keeffe’s sinuous, airy abstraction, at The Monstera deliciosa (1934) to get a sense of Preston’s tough-minded compositional method, or at Sea Wave (1931), one of Cossington Smith’s sensual landscapes. As American curator Cody Hartley writes in the catalogue, each woman, in her irreducible individuality, “found new ways to communicate, new things to say, and new ways to make art significant to their national cultures”. Here modernism is seen not as a style but as an attitude to life and lived location.
If a sharp sense of location was crucial to modernist art, landscape was the genre that made modern life national. Australian curator Denise Mimmocchi points out that these artists “revolutionised the traditions of landscape painting in their respective countries. As landscape served as a potent symbol of nationhood in both America and Australia, their modernist redefinitions of place also challenged assumptions underpinning cultural identity.” Each questioned prevailing orthodoxies. Cossington Smith’s Landscape at Pentecost (1929) shows the growing city reaching into the countryside, a more honest account of the relationships most Australians had with the land than the nostalgic blue and gold landscapes of the time. O’Keeffe diverged from American landscape traditions with her sparse, reductive views of the New Mexico desert, such as the astonishing Black Place, Grey and Pink (1949). As early as 1942, Preston revolutionised the colonisers’ point of view from the air: her Flying Over the Shoalhaven River married the latest and most synoptic viewpoint available with an insistence on the fundamental importance of Aboriginal understandings of the land. In Australia we understand the cultural (and political) challenges posed by these modernist landscapes, and that Preston’s and Cossington Smith’s work was overlooked during the decades when Streeton-esque pastoral visions dominated; O’Keeffe’s pioneering search for “the Great American Thing”, especially through her New Mexico landscapes, reminds us that less than 100 years ago Americans saw themselves as the outsiders of modern art.
At a broad level, Making Modernism opens up crisscrossing themes that are as critical today as they were a century ago: the significance of painting as a cultural laboratory for exploring independence in vision; the emergence of women as artists; the ways modernism, with its many sources and variety of expressions, not only unleashed personal artistic statements but encouraged regional manifestations. The particular examples of O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith, with their life’s work based firmly in independent projects in different countries and regions, speaks to many modernist histories, in India and Vietnam, for example, or Mexico and New Zealand, among numerous other elsewheres.
This exhibition is a useful correction. Modernism has mostly been seen as part of each national project, so while these artists are canonical in their own countries they are not well known outside them. This is as true for the American as for the Australians. O’Keeffe’s works are rarely seen in Australia – three were included in America: Painting a Nation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in 2013 – and only infrequently internationally, though in 2016 London’s Tate Modern mounted the largest ever retrospective outside the US. O’Keeffe has been known for decades through publications and reproductions, but, as art historian Griselda Pollock perceptively noted in the Tate catalogue, this ubiquity has “made her work invisible to us, even in its overexposure …” (Indeed, not everyone loves O’Keeffe – I’ve encountered responses including “banal” and “blowsy” in the past week, which register O’Keeffe’s continually contested status.)
Today the collaboration between museums that permits these artistic exchanges is growing worldwide. As well as budgetary advantages, there are huge benefits in cross-pollinating conversations between historians and curators. In this case the choices of artists and works was an amicable collaborative exercise. In the exhibition catalogue, the Australians write about O’Keeffe and the Americans about the Australian artists, and there’s a net gain in knowledge, a broadening of perspectives on both sides. When Jason Smith, the then director of Heide, approached the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe in 2013, he pitched bringing O’Keeffe’s American modernism to this country precisely in order to elucidate Australian modernism. This was novel – not the usual heroine-worship – and astute: Smith challenged the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum to see her work in a broader context. Moreover, the art museums working on this project all have an established stake in the wider modernist story: the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum holds the most important collection of her work, close to the sites she literally made modern; Heide has a long alliance, through the Reids, with experimental modernism; and the AGNSW, the contemporary collector of Preston’s work, especially since Daniel Thomas’ time there as a curator in the 1970s, has been a major interpreter of Australian modernism. (Queensland Art Gallery’s connection is Jason Smith, who briefly worked there during the gestation of the exhibition.)
And what about the fact that these three exemplary modernists are all women? Recent decades have seen frequent stirrings of interest in connections between women modernists, across the Commonwealth and the globe: in Frida Kahlo and the Canadian Emily Carr, for instance, both of whom O’Keeffe met in the early 1930s. Cody Hartley writes in the catalogue, “To be explicit, O’Keeffe, Preston, and Cossington Smith were not chosen for this exhibition because they are women, but because they are among the most distinct and influential modernists in their respective nations … These artists were not just part of a broader artistic dialogue, they led the conversation.” Yes, and that’s the point: the open experimental character of modernism had something to offer women such as O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith – a new world for the making. If they were making modernism, they were, just as importantly, making new lives for themselves as women. They had nothing to lose, after all, and everything to gain. As Heide’s Lesley Harding writes of the way the three painters persisted with the still-life genre, it expressed “the ‘doubleness of mind’ needed to turn towards the future”.
Now that this future has arrived, audiences are craving art by women, museums are seeking audience-worthy works by women artists, and it seems the tide has finally turned … though that’s a dangerous metaphor, as all tides do eventually ebb. (No one wants The International Year of the Heroine.) So while all three artists were “rediscovered” by feminist scholars and curators, and Making Modernism rides this welcome change with particular intelligence, it’s worth remembering that O’Keeffe suffered decades of reductive feminising interpretations of her flower paintings, starting with critics of her own generation (“womb” was spelled with a capital W), and that she always rebuffed second-wave feminists of the 1970s, such as Judy Chicago, who insisted on essentialist readings of her work. All of which speaks to the fascinating complexity proposed by art made by women, and the varieties of contestation that accompany it.
This gorgeous show is a slow burner. Think you know the grand old Australian dames? Expect no surprises from O’Keeffe? Think again. Each artist is so strong, so confident in her own painterly skin and personal enterprise, that the similarities and (mostly) differences between their projects multiply, and nuances bloom like Cossington Smith’s pink flowers, O’Keeffe’s cottonwood trees, Preston’s muscular banksias. After a grisly 12 months for the arts in Australia, this end-of-year ecstasy is a welcome reaffirmation of the profound value of an artist’s life and work. It is staying with me.
Making Modernism is at Heide Museum of Modern Art until 19 February 2017, Queensland Art Gallery from 11 March to 11 June, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1 July to 2 October.
Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.