Sydney Moderns: Art For A New World

Grace Cossington Smith Bridge in-curve 1930


You’re probably wondering why the the local historical society’s blog has a post featuring an exhibition taking place at the Art Gallery of NSW. A good question with an easy answer.

The artistic and cultural movements resulting from the machine age – the Art Deco and Art Moderne movements – that heavily influenced the featured artists also had a significant Australia-wide impact. It was Art Deco’s optimistic declaration of progress and modernity that cemented its popularity as Australia rebounded from the Great Depression. It was expressed through all types of buildings, commercial, residential and monumental, ushering in a moment of consistency and accessibility to Australia’s built environment.

Art Deco worked on human, street scale and provided definition to our skylines. The embellishments and architectural detail of Art Deco created theatrical incidents which enlivened the conservative atmosphere of the streets. Its hallmarks: the distinctive stepped summit, ornamental detail including popular motifs such as the rising sun, lightning zig zags and bold geometric patterns with the use of rich and colourful materials still assert their presence on the streetscapes of Australia today.

The street scape of Vulcan Street has at least two fine examples of this – the Monarch Hotel (built 1930’s) and the wonderful windows of the Commonwealth Bank (formerly Mylott’s Bakery built 1930). The influence of Art Deco and Art Moderne is also seen in residential architecture and design in the local area.

One of the Art Deco windows at Moruya's CBA
One of the Art Deco windows at Moruya’s CBA
Art Deco detailing on the Monarch Hotel, Moruya

The exhibition, Sydney moderns: art for a new world, showcases more than 180 early modern works by Australia’s most celebrated and respected artists. Spanning the years between 1915 and the early 1940s, the exhibition presents the diverse and versatile forms of Sydney modernism and considers their relationship to modern Australian life, to nationalism and internationalism, and to Australia’s dominant artistic genre, landscape painting.

This landmark exhibition presents one of the liveliest and most distinctive periods in the history of Australian art,’ said Daniel Thomas AM, art historian.

In the years between the two world wars, Sydney was a thriving modern metropolis. By the 1920s its population had grown to one million and its urban environment was being transformed by exciting new structures, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, modern transport and David Jones’ new flagship store on Elizabeth Street. The Home magazine, launched in Sydney in 1920, became the source for all things stylishly modern, promoting the latest ideas in design, furniture, fashion and art.

The exhibition includes the artists Margaret Preston, Roy de Maistre, Roland Wakelin, Grace Cossington Smith, Thea Proctor, Grace Crowley, Ralph Balson, Rah Fizelle, Frank and Margel Hinder, Margo and Gerald Lewers, Dorrit Black, Olive Cotton, Max Dupain and Harold Cazneaux, along with important works by Sydney’s lesser known ‘lost moderns’, such as Tempe Manning, Niel A Gren, Frank Weitzel and Fred Coventry.

These progressive artists in Sydney responded to these new movements. They explored and promoted modernity, modernism and the international style moderne in their work through revolutions in colour and light, and through the developing forms of abstraction. Their diverse works present the dynamic patterns of life under light-filled skies or coloured interiors as new realms of visual experience.

The rich collection of modern Sydney art at the Art Gallery of NSW is augmented by works borrowed from Australia’s major public galleries and private collections. This exhibition will be on display from 6 Jul – 7 Oct 2013

Roy de Maistre
Herbert Badham – George Street, Sydney. 1934 (detail)

To find out more about this exhibition head to

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