Looking Back: Sydney’s Modernists at Leonard Joel

“Modernism sought to build a better future in the aftermath of World War I. An international movement, modernism encapsulated the possibilities of the 20th century. It celebrated the romance of cities, the healthy body and the ideals of abstraction and functionalism in design.”
Powerhouse Museum, 2017

Here are four of my personal favourite examples of the Sydney Moderns that have passed through Leonard Joel’s doors since the start of the year.

Roy De Maistre
Biblical Scene c. 1958
tempera and gold leaf on wood
Sold for $10,625 (IBP) on 17/3/2020

1. Roy de Maistre (1894-1968)

De Maistre was a pioneer of modern Australian painting and a key leader of the modernist movement in Sydney. He is renowned for his work with fellow artist Roland Wakelin in the late 1910s and together they produced revolutionary and ground-breaking abstract and colour experiments. In 1930, Roy travelled to Europe and never returned permanently to Australia, establishing his career in London after unsuccessful attempts to make a living from his art in Sydney.

Oscillating between experiments in Cubism and Figuration, he also created a highly religious body of work dedicated to his lifelong devotion to the Catholic religion. These works came to prominence in the 1950s, after his emigration to London which enabled him to focus on this subject matter.


Roland Wakelin
Rose Bay, Sydney 1962
oil on masonite
Sold for $9,375 (IBP) on 2/6/2020

2. Roland Wakelin (1887-1971)

Born in New Zealand, Wakelin moved to the dynamic city of Sydney in 1912, enticed by its growing association with Australia’s new modernity. He began to study, along with many of his peers, under Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, who is enshrined in Australian art history as the captivating teacher and champion of the Sydney Moderns. Wakelin’s big moment was in 1919, when he and Roy De Maistre held the ‘Colour in Art’ exhibition at Gayfield Shaw’s Art Salon in Sydney, which was as controversial as it was experimental. The show studied the pair’s use of intense colours and simplified forms to investigate the ideas of colour-music synchromism. This was an art theory developed by American artists Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright who believed that colour and tone could be arranged in the same way that a composer arranges notes and chords.[1] ‘The show marked a definitive shift away from naturalism, concurrent with the development in Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism overseas’.[2]

After dabbling in the influence of Max Meldrum and tonalism, Wakelin’s work from the 1930s onwards depicted simple subject matter, the harbour and subjects of domestic life often referred to as his ‘romantic phase’ characterised by moody light and shadow.[3]

[1] National Gallery of Australia, Ocean to Outback: Australian landscape painting 1850–1950
[2] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artist Profile: Roland Wakelin
[3] Barry Pearce, ‘Wakelin, Roland Shakespeare (1887–1971)’ 1990, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University


Frank Hinder
Study for ‘Flight into Egypt’ 1951
oil on board
Sold for $9,136 (IBP)

3. Frank Hinder (1906-1992)

Hinder was one of Australia’s earliest abstractionists. Unlike the other artists of his generation he undertook formal training in New York, instead of the European centres of Paris and London. Accompanied by his new wife, American sculptor Margel Hinder, they returned to Sydney in 1934 and began working extensively with Grace Crowley, Rah Fizelle and Ralph Balson, at the Crowley-Fizelle School, which had overtaken Dorrit Black’s school of Modern Art in popularity. Whilst his peers were moving into complete abstraction from figuration in the 1940s, Hinder used both concurrently throughout his practice with the geometric as the unchanging principle.

In 1952, Hinder won the Blake Prize for Religious Art for his work ‘Flight into Egypt’, now held in the collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. This work, sold at Leonard Joel in June, is a study for the completed work.

Frank Hinder said of this body of work in 1968, “Sketches for the picture were started at the beginning of the war. I was influenced by the thought of movement of people shifted by war, and flight of refugees in Europe. After the war I came back to it and gradually it developed into the Blake picture, ‘Flight into Egypt'”.[1]

[1] Art Gallery of New South Wales, catalogue entry for Frank Hinder, ‘Flight into Egypt’ 1943, 2002


Dorrit Black
Landscape (possible near Mirmande) c. 1934-1940
oil on board
Sold for $91,364 (IBP)

4. Dorrit Black (1891-1951)

Although known as a key exponent of South Australia’s modernist scene, Dorrit Black also played a key role in Sydney’s art scene, not only with her body of work created of the Harbour Bridge but her teachings as well. In the 1930s she established her Modern Art Centre, becoming the first woman to run an art gallery in Australia. Emboldened by her recent encounters with the French Cubists in Mirmande, she set about to exhibit and teach modern art.

Mirmande in the South of France was the location of André Lhote’s school in which Black enrolled in 1928 with her friends Anne Dangar and Grace Crowley. It is the principles that Black learnt here that reinvigorated her commitment to modernism and encouraged her to bring these ideas back to her school in Sydney.

[1] Art Gallery of New South Wales, catalogue entry for Frank Hinder, ‘Flight into Egypt’ 1943, 2002


Ella Perrottet, Art Assistant