Australian women artists in the early 20th Century were pivotal in the shaping of Modernism as we know it today. Framed by the world wars, the Wall street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, Australia bore witness to an influx of change and social evolution. The rise in international media, education and access to travel, enabled many Australian women to embrace the opportunity to study abroad, connecting them to the epicentres of Modernism in Europe.
Modernist teachings made their way to Australian shores through numerous artists and individuals. Sydney born artist Norah Simpson has been widely documented as the first woman to introduce Modernism to Australia in 1913. After studying in England, she returned home with a suitcase filled with art books, posters and reproductions. She studied under the great English master, Walter Sickert, who introduced her to a new artistic conscience filled with politics, innovation and experimentation. So too, the infamous Claude Flight introduced his students at the Grosvenor School in London to modern printmaking methods which embraced the fast-paced modern lifestyle that was quickly gripping the 20th Century. Some of his most accomplished students included Australians Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Thea Proctor – all young Australian women who mastered their skills through this movement and brought these ideas back with them to Australia.
Featured within this auction, The Castle, Taormina by Dorrit Black (lot 14), demonstrates volume and solidity through the advanced overlaying of colour and the dramatic vertical forms and shadows. Exhibited at Redfern Gallery in London in 1929, this with five other selected prints was the first public exhibit using the new medium.
These revolutionary modern ideas discovered overseas eventually became more prevalent in the schools and artist groups here in Australia. Taught by several Australian women artists who had trained overseas, these schools were established privately, away from the public institutions that had support and funding for the traditions of Impressionism, taught in overwhelmingly masculine environments. In the early 1930s, Grace Crowley along with Rah Fizelle established The Crowley-Fizelle Studio and Dorrit Black opened the Modern Art Centre, both quickly becoming Modernist hubs for teaching abstraction and the principles of Cubism.
While these schools encouraged students to find their own style, teaching methods were dedicated to structuring composition around geometric proportions involving both symmetry and fragmentation. Laying the groundwork, these artists set the precedence for other modernist women to come. Constance Stokes work Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter 1961 (lot 20) sits perfectly in the frame of later modernism and all its painterly attributes. Using abstract principles, she honed the use of flat panes of colour and line, speaking to the geometric influence that engulfed the movement.
Not all Australian artists, however, followed this new Modernist route. While she did embrace modern methods differently within her practice, Hilda Rix Nicholas was widely known for her post-impressionist attributes. After studying under the great Frederick McCubbin, she was one of the first Australian artists to follow this trend and undertake what was known as the ‘Artist’s Circuit’ throughout French North Africa. In these paintings, she hones the unique qualities of the sun and striking architecture which normally served as a challenge to western artists with formal European training.
While the traditions of Impressionism were still very much prevalent in the first half of the 20th Century in Australia, the emergence of these modernist women artists reflected the rapid progression of the art world and society in Australia with inspiration from abroad. Today, recent exhibitions have more diligently acknowledged the leadership role played by these women who were at the forefront of the modern movement in Australia, and who are now being academically acknowledged for their contributions which they so rightly deserve.
LUCY FOSTER / Art Specialist
Banner image: Lot 14, DORRIT BLACK (1891-1951), The Castle, Taormina c. 1928-29, $20,000-30,000, October Women Artists Auction 2021