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O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism brought together the American Georgia O’Keeffe and two Australians: Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith. Setting each artist’s work in its own tightly hung space, the curators (and there were many) presented an enticingly simple premise. In unison they stated: Here are three significant Modernists. Their work revealed to us rich similarities in ambition and productive differences in context and technique. Do you see them, too?
With their premise established, the curators metaphorically retreated. Admittedly, one felt their presence in the subtle clustering of artworks, concise displays of ephemera, and minimal use of wall text, yet the overriding sensation when viewing the exhibition was a generous invitation to form one’s own answer to this question. In response to this framework, viewing Making Modernism required a self-imposed rigor that was extremely satisfying.
At the Queensland Art Gallery, viewers entered the exhibition via a shallow foyer and an even shorter hallway, painted floor-to-ceiling in medium blue. With the turn of the hallway one was presented with the first images of the exhibition, three enlarged photographs of O’Keeffe on a motorcycle, Preston in a garden, and Cossington Smith striding down a city street. They are modern women—adventurers, romantics, and cosmopolitans—not in communication but in sync. Following these images of the artists, the gallery split in two, prompting visitors to select either Preston or Cossington Smith for viewing first, before culminating the tour in a final space dedicated to O’Keeffe.
The gallery of Preston’s works began with her self-assured Self Portrait (1930). It’s a crisp and confident rendition of the artist, placing her in bold black clothing against a brick wall and potted desert peas, paintbrush in hand. As one continued through the space, small groupings of paintings and prints were laid out roughly chronologically. Preston’s commanding use of composition, line, and color, so familiar to Australian viewers in works such as Anemones (1925), was confirmed in less well-known still lifes and scenes of the city and the shore.
Viewing her work en masse revealed Preston’s tendency to repeat certain techniques. Other works offered evidence of artistic detours, some more successful than others. For example, Preston typically paints domestic still lifes from a high perspective, flattening out the horizontal and vertical forms of tablecloths and walls and transforming them into complex, patterned compositions. Developing this technique further in The Monstera Deliciosa (1934), Preston paints two swaths of light across the leaves and flower of the plant. Intriguingly, these areas do not suggest a light source but instead mimic two areas of lightness on the architectural feature in the work’s backdrop. In White and Red Hibiscus (1925), Preston substitutes her more common technique of boldly outlined forms with a delightful confusion of tablecloth, cut flowers, and wallpaper. Farther down this same wall, The Brown Pot (1940), inspired by Australian Aboriginal art, wailed against Preston’s jarring use of heavy black lines, checkerboard background, burnt stalks, and dotted banksia flowers.
The final five paintings by Preston in the show depict the Australian landscape in a consistently muted palette of browns, grays, and sunburnt greens. These landscapes are constructions, with horizontal and vertical relationships to the frame, but their titles (Blue Mountains Theme, I Lived at Berowra, Flying over the Shoalhaven River) also reveal them as representations of real places. There is something uneasy in these images, an acquaintance undone by palette and composition. It’s difficult to locate ourselves in these landscapes; their perspectives are distant, unclear, and unnatural. They prompt questions: Do I recognize these scenes as Australian landscapes? And how does this unease, this uncertainty, relate to the ideas of place, belonging, and national identity proposed by Making Modernism?
The Cossington Smith gallery glowed with a lighter color palette, bristling brushwork, and livelier depictions of landscape, the city, and the garden. In this room, one recognized a shared commitment to line, composition, and color explored in an utterly distinct way. Whereas Preston establishes bold compositions of flat color bound by thick lines, Cossington Smith builds up form with bands of small, paint-laden brushstrokes. Her works pulse and vibrate with painterly energy teetering on the edge of explosion.
Cossington Smith’s oeuvre is less familiar than Preston’s, and viewing her gallery was accompanied with a sense of discovery and delight. Landscape at Pentecost (1929) provides an example. Positioning herself high on a country hill, slightly left of the center of a road, Cossington Smith looked out to the horizon. A ruddy orange road bounds, rollercoaster-like, over verdant green fields toward distant hills painted in a rich, muted blue. One’s stomach lurches at the imagined thrill of riding down the hill. On the opposite wall, Trees (1927) suggested Cossington Smith’s equal allegiance to the colors of Fauvism and geometric abstraction of Orphism. In this work, the artist positions the (unseen) horizon line of a tennis court deep down in the bottom quarter of the painting; soaring trees dominate the scene, almost entirely blocking out the sky. In the manner of a Cubist, Cossington Smith frees line and tone from their functional roles, creating an all-over patterning that overlaps and confuses midground and background, making a quiltlike weaving of the scene.
With differences between Preston and Cossington Smith established, the task of identifying and articulating similarities arose. Some similarities were suggested by the curators, particularly via the inclusion of artworks by the three artists according to shared subject matter, while others required detective-like attention to small artistic techniques. In Pumpkin Leaves Drooping (1926), Cossington Smith paints a tightly cropped portion of her garden filled with yellow, blue, and gray-greens. Four timorous scratches sweep through the scene, leaving thin white lines of exposed canvas. It’s a technique that recalls The Monstera Deliciosa by Preston and serves as evidence of Cossington Smith’s shared attention to manipulating compositions for the purposes of cohesion and rhythm.
The final gallery, of O’Keeffe works, opened with Blue Line (1919), a familiar floral/vaginal work. In this intimate oil on canvas, O’Keeffe establishes a third approach to representation, evading the geometry and flatness of Preston’s bold outlines and Cossington Smith’s painterly bands for compositions that have depth and roundness. In these gently undulating paintings O’Keeffe opts for blended and gradated color. Unlike Preston and Cossington Smith, who produced figurative paintings, O’Keeffe oscillates in images like this between figuration and abstraction. Continuing through the gallery, one could equally be tempted to comment on the three artists’ diverse approaches to painting flowers, on each artist’s unique color palette (in this sampling, O’Keeffe works in strong blues, warm browns, lime greens, salmon pinks, and charcoal grays), or on correlations between individual artworks—such as Cossington Smith’s Trees and O’Keeffe’s feathery Cottonwood Tree in Spring (1943) or Preston’s aerial landscape Flying over the Shoalhaven River (1942) and O’Keeffe’s late, zigzagging abstraction Pink and Green (1960)—but two revelations overrode these intellectual exercises of painterly comparisons.
First, the group of O’Keeffe paintings gathered here does not represent her best work. Because Making Modernism coincided with a major O’Keeffe retrospective at the Tate Modern, its curators had limited access to bigger, better-known pieces by the artist. The resulting selection mirrored the size and subject matter (landscapes, architecture, and floral portraits) of the two Australian artists, but to O’Keeffe’s disadvantage. Her experimentations in pure abstraction, demonstrated in Blue Black and Grey (1960) and Blue – A (1959), were particularly underwhelming. Second, and rather unexpectedly for Australian audiences trained in European and American modernism, these images felt undeniably foreign. The blue of O’Keeffe’s skies, the folds of her mountain ranges, and the trunks and leaves of her trees are alien—neither familiar nor homely. It’s a realization unique to Australian viewers, and one that can only be formed after viewing Preston and Cossington Smith. In this realization the “fuller ambition” of the exhibition, proposed by the initiating curator Jason Smith and reported by Cody Hartley, came to fruition: an ambition, according to the exhibition catalogue, to “bring O’Keeffe to Australia so that audiences could better understand the significance and importance of Australian modernism” (3, emphasis added).
In three essays and fourteen other texts on individual artworks (a pleasing extravagance), the lavish exhibition catalogue establishes the image as king, filling over half its pages with color reproductions. But the success of the exhibition is the failure of the catalogue. The unspoken curatorial findings, which allowed audiences to draw their own conclusions in the exhibition space, remain unarticulated in written form. Searching the essays for comparative analyses, answers, and conclusions, the reader is met with repetition and evasion. At the end of the catalogue, the conversation feels unfinished, prompting awkward questions: Didn’t the curators come to any conclusions? Or, worse yet, did they also come to the unspeakable conclusion that O’Keeffe, the major American modernist, is outshone by Preston and Cossington Smith? After the exhibition, when Preston and Cossington Smith’s works have returned to the walls of our state and national galleries, I imagine viewers will permit themselves a quiet smile. Bringing O’Keeffe to Australia has allowed audiences to better appreciate Australian modernism.
Lecturer, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University