O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism
Making Modernism at Heide Museum of Modern Art assembles the work of Australian artists Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith alongside the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Huge full-length windows let in natural light and vistas of bushland. O’Keeffe’s elongated night vision of a tree, Bear Lake, New Mexico (1930), twins with the pale limbs of a eucalypt outside the window. It is a rare moment when outside distracts from the energies inside the museum. This exhibition arrests the eye and the mind with a pared-back distilled narrative about making art in the era of modernism.
All three artists were women who lived long lives, trained early in their careers, and created works across and beyond the World Wars. Print technology meant that all three were informed by current literature about art and prints of post-impressionist and modernist art without having to view the originals. Print technology and film also meant that art and the artist could become well known nationwide; creating a self-conscious awareness of the public gaze. Preston and O’Keeffe sought to develop an art with national characteristics, perhaps partly in response to the gaze of a real or imagined audience in an era when World Wars fanned nationalism in new and established nations.
The work at Heide is, for the most part, presented chronologically. It zooms in on the oil painting of still life and place. This limited focus allows us to see how experimentation, foregrounding of form and technique, subjectivity, and borrowing from other cultures makes modernism different from what took place before. The sense of a mind on the canvas seeing and thinking plays out differently for each artist.
Preston embraced travel and had the means to take advantage of the technology that made it available to her. She learnt china painting and silkscreen techniques in the late 1800s before studying with Frederick McCubbin. She saw exhibitions of Japanese woodcut prints during a visit to Paris in 1912, learnt pottery in London in 1916. The latter two art forms shape their aesthetic from the constraint imposed by their materials. They work within strong boundaries.
Preston’s work imparts a sense that she does too. They do not impart a sense of something beyond the frame. Her images are compressed interrogations of the relationship between an object, colour and the geometry of line. Her use of strong, dense, colour foregrounds pattern and design.
The object is placed into the service of the design such that her canvas resembles the cool, precise mind of someone who learns anew how to perfect a cryptic crossword. Her oils on canvas have confidence, tightness and balance. In the mid-twenties, her still lifes are summer-toned, with playful juxtaposition between the pattern in tablecloth and curtain as well as a tilt on perspective. Her flowers are flowers as well as shapes and colours: she sees a dance of pattern in their repetition while paying homage to the thing itself.
Her later work seems to shift the balance. What happens if the aliveness of the flower is allowed to speak through colour and geometry: to be so authentically itself that the magnetism of its physicality seems to be directing the composition? Her native flowers radiate a fierce energy that draws in and repels simultaneously. Her colours have a heightened organic quality that remind of ceramic glaze melded from natural materials. Her limited palette dramatizes the stark bold design. Her celebrated West Australian Gum Blossom (1928) and The Monstera Deliciosa (1934) flex as if they have taken on their artist’s seeing from cubism and constructivism while demanding that she stay true to their otherness.
Preston reworks the relationship between the thing, the colour and design in her late work; her landscapes based near her bushland home borrow (or appropriate) the palette and motif of Aboriginal painting. I Lived at Berowra (1941) ghosts an Aboriginal figure into the landscape, while others such as Flying over the Shoalhaven River (1942) map the landscape from the air. Her landscape patterns evoke serenity and harmony; a significant departure from her taut still lifes.
Unlike Preston, Cossington Smith allows the lived moment to shape her canvas. It is tempting to see her work as a bridge between the post-impressionists and abstract expressionism. Her vivid works embrace the colour spectrum. They are life affirming, joyous, and share the energy, structure and emotional tonality of music.
There is a beguiling intimate engagement with her subject that invites the viewer in. Her subject is the everyday including city cafés and the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. An affinity with her subject seems fundamental as does the relationship between form and colour, and, later, the relationship between light and colour.
Cossington Smith builds a partnership between colour and form that integrates mark-making seamlessly with curved, dynamic planes of colour. The movement is almost run-away in Trees (c.1927) and Landscape at Pentecost (1929) as if the integrative energy is still dancing in the mind of its creator, resolving rather than resolved. The effect is fresh and immediate. Her synthesis is lithe, propulsive and electric.
Interior with Wardrobe Mirror (1955) and The Window (1956) are large, brilliant works. They create new worlds where the familiar is made radiant, transcendent and strange. Her interiors are reminiscent of Bonnard’s work, but they are distinctively her own. Cossington-Smith’s interiors do not restrict the view: they expand them. Her rooms are balanced, spacious, unpeopled yet personal. They pulse with colour and light. This is achieved with patterns of gem-like, unblended colour. These glittering interiors fuse each to each: inside ignites with outside, immersing us in light’s shifting play with colour.
The intimacy and musicality of Cossington Smith’s work contrasts with the distances and silence evoked by O’Keeffe. Vastness swims in O’Keeffe’s bones. Standing in the middle of a clean-white room surrounded by works themed in a cool palette of blue, green and white amplifies the sense of an expansive, diffuse boundary and prepares for the encounter with individual works. Her images seem to float almost beyond the edge of the canvas
The bringing together of opposites seems a suitable framework to approach her work: light and dark, form and formlessness, soft and hard, land and sky, mind and body, reality and dream, life and death. Contrast recurs as a shaping device for a visual language to articulate the vast. Borrowing from the distance and new seeing offered by a photographic lens came to mind as did the unstable but bound relationship a photograph has to its negative.
Her diaphanous, silky, opalescent details of fabric or flowers juxtapose light and dark so that form seems to emerge from the contrast between the colours. Layers recur as a motif; the interplay between unfolding and eluding leads us into the infinite even when her canvas is small (The Black Iris 1926). Like Preston, O’Keeffe was interested in creating art that had national characteristics, responding to the landscape around her home in New Mexico. Yet, the most resonant works are those which straddle her inner and outer world and take us beyond any particular place. Pelvis IV (1944) and In the Patio VII (1950) are striking examples of how her clean flat colours evoke the sculptural and the tactile because they borrow from our memory of the real (bone and terracotta courtyard) and contrast it with the formlessness of sky. Subtle contrast between the density and sheen of each colour field magnifies the sense of colour having a tactile quality. By comparison, the images of misted Cottonwood trees seem pasty, disappointing.
Confidence and optimism infuses the work of the three artists despite living through two world wars and the Great Depression. The influence of these experiences on their art making is not addressed in this exhibition. Cossington Smith’s paintings of social commentary are not included presumably to keep the focus on still life and landscape. Arguably, Cossington Smith and Preston integrate the old with the new while O’Keeffe turns away from the old and makes the new. Nonetheless, the past returns. In a room of its own, the film about O’Keeffe flickers her small dark figure amid the vast landscape of New Mexico. The film’s silvery reflection casts into the adjoining room, ghosts across Abstraction White (1927), amplifying its iridescence.