Ethel Spowers, Harvest, 1932, linocut, 19.3 x 29.1 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, University Senate Grant, 1982
News, Reviews, Visual arts

Telling the stories of an eclectic era

Review: Sally Quin, “Cosmopolitan” ·
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery ·
Review by Craig McKeough ·

The curatorial challenge in pulling together an exhibition of Australian art of the 1930s is apparent from a quick survey of the walls of the University of WA’s Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

The exhibition, “Cosmopolitan”, seems a perplexing mix of small landscapes, quirky portraits, sketches of nudes, surreal depictions of political oppression, distorted still life paintings and a taste of geometric abstraction and cubism, among other disparate offerings.

These works are grouped logically with others of similar style, but how do these groups relate to each other?

Elise Blumann, Summer nude, 1939, oil on board, 121.5 x 91.5 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Acquired with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council and the Dr Albert Gild Fund, 1976
Elise Blumann, ‘Summer nude’, 1939, oil on board, 121.5 x 91.5 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Acquired with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council and the Dr Albert Gild Fund, 1976

Perhaps they don’t in any meaningful way other than the period of their creation, but as Sally Quin, curator of this exhibition, tells it, this diversity – the lack of a real focus – reflects the times.

The 1930s was a period when emerging forms of communication were helping open Australia to international influences as never before.

It was a turbulent social period dominated by the Great Depression and bookended by the monumental global upheavals of the 1929 stock market crash and World War II.

Art lacked an overriding movement and in Australia, artistic activity and growth depended to a large degree on improved and speedier access to trends and movements overseas, especially in Europe. The ready access to overseas travel for some artists and wider availability of art prints, books and journals from the Northern Hemisphere opened even sleepy Perth to new ideas, practices and choices.

Even so, there was no dominant or outstanding trend, and as a result the 1930s in Australia has become something of a forgotten period in art, especially when viewed against the earlier Heidelberg school of painters and the later, progressive Angry Penguin movement.

Adelaide Perry, Woman pilot, 1931, oil on composition board, 49.5 x 39.3 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, McGillivray Bequest Fund, 1983
Adelaide Perry, ‘Woman pilot’, 1931, oil on composition board, 49.5 x 39.3 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, McGillivray Bequest Fund, 1983

The high profile of female artists in this period is notable. In fact, Quin says it was the only period in the history of art that women were at least the equal of men as creative protagonists and not just passive subjects.

Again, it was a reflection of the times. Among the elite classes at least, women were gaining the power to make choices about how they lived their lives. The 1920s brought more freedom for women and by the 1930s those with the means to do so were asserting themselves.

Many of the images in this collection underline that assertiveness. The striking image that greets observers as they enter the gallery is Adelaide Perry’s Woman Pilot, a quite glamorous depiction of female empowerment. A strong female face dominates the frame as she gazes into the middle distance. We don’t know who she is, but in the era of Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson and Nancy Bird Walton, there is no mistaking she means business.

Elsewhere, there is the large and, for the era, confronting portrait Summer Nude by Elise Blumann. The model leans casually against a balcony rail, the burst of vivid orange from her towel contrasting with the deep blue of the ocean, and the anonymity of her facial features serving only to highlight the sun-drenched female form.

In fact, three of the most outstanding images in the collection are by female artists. Along with Blumann’s nude, Ethel Spowers’ bold linocut print Harvest (pictured top) and Clarice Beckett’s moody tonal oils study Evening on the Yarra stand out for their confident execution and dramatic visual impact.

John Oldham, The Gledden Building, 1936, watercolour, 59.5 x 39 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Gift of Oldham, Boas, Ednie Brown Architects, 1937
John Oldham, The Gledden Building, 1936, watercolour, 59.5 x 39 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Gift of Oldham, Boas, Ednie Brown Architects, 1937

Today we think of the Great Depression as casting a pall over the decade, and there are certainly reflections on its impact in this show. Harald Vike’s pensive portraits of subjects in the reading room at Perth’s public library hint at poverty and unemployment forcing people to seek shelter and warmth in public spaces. On the flip side, there is a striking architectural painting of the shining new, golden Gledden Building by John Oldham, heralding a small slice of New York art deco glamour in 1930s Perth.

Ultimately, this showing from UWA’s own collection and the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art is perhaps too diverse to make much sense as a cohesive survey.

But the context is important, and the exhibition succeeds in spite of this looseness of theme because a good number of the works presented have an interesting story to tell in their own right. Each forms a small part of Australia’s response to a fascinating and pivotal period in modern history.

“Cosmopolitan” continues until December 7.

Pictured top:

Ethel Spowers, ‘Harvest’, 1932, linocut, 19.3 x 29.1 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, University Senate Grant, 1982

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