Making Modernism: of fallacy and fable

Making Modernism: of fallacy and fable

How I heard about ‘Making Modernism’ I can’t recall but the premise so intrigued me that I wrote it in one of the many lists that accumulate in the back of my moleskine each year and, months later, I coerced my parents into driving the two-and-a-half hours from where my dad lives to the Heide Museum of Modern Art on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Originally a dairy farm, the property was bought by Sunday & John Reed in the early 1930s and – according to the Heide brochure – shortly thereafter they opened up their home to ‘like-minded individuals, nurturing a circle of artists, writers and intellectuals who contributed to Heide becoming a place for the discussion, creation and promotion of modern art and literature.’

Not to be lewd but I have to note that both my 81 year old father and my ageless mother snorted at this description and engaged in a ribald series of escalating innuendo centring on what exactly was being nurtured at Heide during this time. The Internets seem to support this hypothesis, which does raise the question of why such salacious scandal is not referred to in the promotional material, as surely it goes wonderfully with the French provincial weatherboard, the artful sloping gardens and white-sandstone modernist wing?

I can’t help think that at the very least exposition of such histories would ignite greater interest and perhaps even lower the median visitor age below menopause.

A lovely precinct of lawn dotted with sculptural works and architecture of some actual merit, Heide is well worth a visit for the atmosphere alone. Everything is ticketed but everything is also covered by the same ticket, which does rather spread the pain, as there are four distinct gallery spaces (Heide I, Heide II, and the two galleries in Heide III).

When we visited Charles Blackman was showing between the magnificent bookshelves in the weatherboard Heide I, while Sidney Nolan’s slates (not his best moment, arguably the slate should have been left to its intended protective purpose) dominate a curiously screened Heide II (the modernist wing built by the Reeds). As is natural, my father inquired as to the purpose of the drawn blinds (curious in a house purpose-built both as a museum dwelling and as an ode to the modernist love of plate glass) and then, just as naturally, proceeded to get into an argument with the (admittedly aggressive) aide who insisted the blinds were to protect the light-sensitive works.

(“Light sensitive slate?” insisted my dad. “It’s house enamel on roofing material – its going to be in excellent condition after we’re both dead and buried!”)

Arguments aside (though not done because he would also proceed to have a loud debate with the aides in Making Modernism about the photography ban, which would – incidentally – allow me to take all manner of photos), we proceeded to the main wing which housed both Making Modernism and an assortment of Albert Tucker’s which I suppose are quite good (?) if you like that sort of thing though I’ve not yet managed to get past the palpable anger in every stroke - and that’s from someone who likes Lucien Freud.

So, ‘Making Modernism’. Or, to give the full effect with the full title ‘O’Keefe, Preston & Cossington Smith: Making Modernism.’ Which you know, is a fairly interesting premise because although my knowledge of the modernist movement is admittedly shaky in places, I was unaware that any of them were particularly instrumental in such making (perhaps O’Keefe more than the other but even then…)

Sadly I can’t really say that I knew much more about the hypothesis of how these artists made modernism after viewing the show. Perhaps it would be better to chalk the title up to having too much fun with alliteration (guilty) rather than any actual intent. Names aside, the description of the show rather tickled me:

"The joining of these artists for exhibition is unusual in that they are not bound by any personal familiarity or direct correspondence. If O'Keefe and her Australian counterparts were aware of one another, it was only in the most general way - in all likelihood Preston and Cossington Smith never saw O'Keefe's work in person and vice versa"

One would expect, having thus laid out how much these artists neither knew nor influenced each other, the show would strive to show similarities in their respective bodies of work. But no. Kept to their separate rooms (actually) the works interact and speak to each other as much as their creators did. Which is to say, not at all.

There’s a brave attempt at joining the women through a common interest in nature (so niche) and a pioneering attitude (?) but largely the curators seem to rely on the commonality of the American and Australian modernist experience as overlooked colonial backwaters. Add some awkwardly phrased language about ‘indigenous trauma’ and ‘natural beauty’ and it appears our continents have been bonded retrospectively and the narrative altered to suit.

The curators are very keen for you to know that the three un-intersecting artists have been bought together for reasons other than their gender. “To be explicit, O’Keefe 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.” Of course this has a touch of the lady doth protest too much. And in fact the decision to put them together robs them of this lofty context as influential modernists and leaves each of them swimming alone in a respective sea of pattern and pastel.

There’s some solid work from each artist - geometric floral and flat cups from Preston, pastel bridges and sofa-sitting-sock-knitters from Cossington Smith and all manner of strongly pigmented lumps and bumps (floral and landform) from O’Keefe – but it’s still not enough to create a cohesive show. There’s little of O’Keefe signature sexualised flowers and what there is serves to highlight the strange austerity with which Preston treated the same subject.

The catalogue boldly notes that showing these artists together acts like a mirror with each illuminating new richness and depth in the others work; a beautiful premise that is not supported by the actuality of the show.

Indeed, one can’t quite shake the impression that the Georgia O’Keefe Museum wouldn’t ship enough work (to the colonial backwater) so Preston and Cossington Smith were roped in as floral stopgaps. It’s an unfair impression, perhaps, not least because Preston and Cossington Smith each have several (different) things going for them. But still, given the perplexing non-relation of the artists selected, the impression persists.

You can catch Making Modernism at Heide until 19 February 2017 where tickets will set you back $22 for an adult and $18 for a concession. If you miss that never fear, Making Modernism will be in Australia for most of 2017 showing at the Queensland Art Gallery from 11 March to 11 June and then at the AGNSW between 1 July and 2 October. 

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