09 May 2010

1939 exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art

Contemporary British art had definitely been seen in Australian exhibitions in the 1920s and 1930s. Edwin Fuller curated and organised two shows, both called The Exhibition of Contemporary British Art, in 1928 & 1932. They had 368 fairly conservative paintings that included Laura Knight, Mark Gertler and Frank Brangwyn. Alleyne Zander’s Exhibition of British Contemporary Art took 184 works to Melbourne and Sydney in 1933. She offered paintings by Edward Wadsworth, Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer for sale. But the galleries were feeling the Great Depression badly. And Jacob Epstein’s modernism outraged some of the critics.

C Soutine, Madeleine Castaing, 1929, Metrop NY

It was not until Joseph Goebbels ordered a total purging be done of all of Germany’s public art collections, that people in Australia started to take notice of modern art, other than British. The art that had been selected out for destruction was to be shown to the German people for the last time. And as we saw, millions turned up for a special Exhibition of Entartete Kunst, held in 1937 in Munich as a farewell tour.

Then a similar show was brought to Australia in August 1939. How did Australians react to modernist European art, just weeks days before WW2 broke out?

In 1938 newspaper baron Keith Murdoch, a NGV trustee and avid art collector himself, sponsored the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art. Murdoch told the Herald board ‘Gallipoli has given us one kind of maturity. This exhibition will give us another’. Murdoch’s personal taste in art was actually traditional in that he generally preferred understandable art. But he was brave.

Exhibition curator Basil Burdett, the Melbourne Herald’s art critic and a former gallery owner, assembled the show during a whirlwind 5-month visit to Europe in 1938. The choice of Burdett was a good one since his overseas contacts were astonishing. He counted Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein among his friends. He was able to secure loans from curators and scholars, artists and dealers.

Burdett selected the 217 paintings and a few sculptures, negotiated with British and European galleries and organised transport of the collection, which arrived in Australia just before WW2. His assumption was that modern art may have been rejected as not conforming to the political/ideological needs of Nazi Germany, but that Australian art critics would not influenced by German politics.

However two Australian art critics DID influence the outcome for the Herald Exhibition across Australia and negatively. The first was the director of Australia’s biggest state gallery, the NGV, James S McDonald. He feared the exhibition had a corrupting influence: "There is no doubt that the great majority of the work called Modern is the product of degenerates and perverts. If we take a part by refusing to pollute our gallery with this filth, we shall render a service to Art. As owners of a great Van Eyck, if we take a part by refusing to pollute our gallery with this filth we shall render a service to Art." He resented the deluge of publicity Murdoch organised "to urge us to swallow this putrid meat".

Fernand Léger, La Femme au chat, 1921, Kunsthalle Hambourg

Modern art and leftist politics went together, he believed, and neither should be supported by state patronage. McDonald contrasted the decadence of modern tendencies with the “timeless virtues and verities which appeared to be found for all time in the canvases of Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen”. Modernism was ‘gangrened stuff which attracts the human blowflies of the world who thrive on putrid fare”.

McDonald believed that the success of Australian art relied in the fact that our artists come from stout British Protestant stock. Yet some of Australia's most prominent painters were neither British nor Protestant eg Girolamo Nerli, Datillo Rubbo, Louis Abrahams, Emmanuel Phillips Fox, Elioth Gruner, Hans Heysen, Danila Vassilieff, Yosl Bergner. JS McDonald's moral outrage against modern art seems ridiculous to us now. The cubist paintings of a Fernand Leger may have been modernist and challenging, but they were hardly a Total Insult to a Decent Christian Nation. Yet his views carried power.

The second attacker was Lionel Lindsay, trustee of Australia’s second biggest state gallery, the Art Gallery of NSW. Plus he was a member of one of Australia’s most famous families in art & literature. He wrote about the Australian Public being duped by Jew dealers in Paris, as I have cited before in this blog.

Works by Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Chagall, Dali, Modigliani etc may have been not to everyone’s taste, but could modern art have brought down Australian civilisation? Of course not. Yet in 1937, the Attorney-General Robert Menzies had proposed the establishment of a Federal Art Society to arbitrate healthy taste and promote sound, realistic painters.

Robert Menzies’ vision for an Australian Academy of Art eventually failed. The academy proposal caused such division among the Australian arts community that the organisers disbanded in 1946 from lack of support. Still, the ideas espoused by Menzies and the hard-core advocates of the academy continued to influence views concerning the nature of an Australian art tradition. The anti-modernism stance of Lionel Lindsay in NSW and JS McDonald in Victoria attracted significant support from advocates of the Australian Academy of Art.

Menzies later wrote to Lindsay that he had recently read the latter’s book Addled Art with supreme joy. Menzies regarded 90% of the artists as rank impostors: refugees had discovered an art racket SINCE their arrival in Australia as “victims of oppression in Europe”.

Duncan Grant, The Dancers, c1911, The Tate

You might have thought that artists are paid to innovate, investigate, push boundaries & challenge traditions. You also might have thought that the director of a national gallery would have been interested in the aesthetic & intellectual developments of modern art. Apparently not. I would not have minded had the Australian critics said they did not enjoy the modern art, or they thought it was untalented. I object to the language that they had borrowed straight from Goebbels, language of disease, degeneracy, anti Semitism, racism and perversion.

Note that McDonald and Lindsay WERE successful. They prevented the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art from being shown in state galleries; they cut off normal advertising revenue and they blocked almost all the paintings from being sold to Australian collections.

Anyhow 217 art objects went into the Herald exhibition. While art patrons in New York, Chicago, Paris, London, Berlin and other major cities had ready access to these modernist works, a show of this artistic range and size had never been held in Australia before.

As well as leading British painters Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Walter Sickert, SJ Peploe and Edward Wadsworth, it included post-impressionists Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne; early moderns Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Marc Chagall; and other contemporary pioneers like Fernand Léger. Despite the title of the exhibition, French and British Contemporary Art, many artists were neither French nor British: Amedeo Modigliani, Kees van Dongen and Vincent van Gogh, Osip Zadkine, Adolph Milich, Georges Kars, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.

The exhibition premiered at the Adelaide State Gallery in Aug 1939 and ran for 3 weeks, attracting 7,000+ people and making a reasonable profit. Note, dear reader, that the South Australian gallery was the only major state-funded art museum to host the show and they presented the art objects very nicely.

When the Exhibition moved on to Victoria and New South Wales, the Directors of the NGV and the Art Gallery of NSW forbade the exhibition from being shown in THEIR state galleries. Instead the exhibition was held in Melbourne’s Lower Town Hall. Crowds were so large that on the first day 2,000 people were turned away, even though opening hours were until 10 PM. Such was its popularity that it had to be extended for another week. In total 48,000 Melbournians saw the show, an extremely large number that further infuriated MacDonald.

In Sydney, a floor of the giant retail shop David Jones was used for the exhibition, attracting 15,000 people. The public was clearly excited to view major works by modern masters, despite the fact that leading representatives of the local art world vehemently denounced the show and worked to undermine it. While the Sydney attendances were not as high as those in Melbourne, the exhibition produced heated debate on modernism.

Of course Murdoch’s Sun News Pictorial newspaper gave great coverage to the event. A record total 70,000+ people saw the exhibition in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, when Australia’s total population in 1939 was only 7 million.

When the Sydney exhibition ended, the paintings were loaned to the AGNSW, which agreed to take them for 5 months. But instead of displaying them, the trustees put the paintings in storage. Despite letters from hundreds of artists and gallery patrons, who begged to see the works, the trustees claimed that there was not enough space to display them. Such was the hostility to the AGNSW trustees that when one of them turned up at a public meeting, he was heckled by 200 artists. The gallery board was gobsmacked.

The outbreak of WW2 meant that the collection, instead of being returned to its European owners, remained in Australia for the duration of the war. Writing about this exhibition in his book The Art of Australia, Robert Hughes noted: "A door had opened briefly. But then it shut; the war broke out and, although the paintings could not be returned to Europe, they were kept in their crates until 1946." This wasn’t quite so. Most of the pictures from the exhibition remained available throughout the 7 years, 1939-46. Smaller versions of the show were mounted in Brisbane, Hobart and Launceston. And many of the works were eventually included in separate exhibitions at the NGV and AGNSW, in 1942 and 1943.

Perhaps the most revealing example of the narrow-mindedness of those dominating the local art scene was their failure to purchase any of the exhibition’s most important works. The majority of the paintings were for sale and with the war starting in Europe, they were being offered at fire-sale prices. There was the possibility of buying major works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Bonnard and others. Yet the NGV, with the vast Felton Bequest resources (an annual income of £23,000 in 1939), managed to acquire only one Van Gogh and one small Derain.

The anti-modernists had won the battle but the tide was turning. Art 21 showed how Dali's Memory of the Child-Woman remained in Australia for several years, giving the continent an extended viewing of Dali’s brand of Surrealism. No viewer fainted; no critic foamed at the mouth.

For a wonderful analysis of the entire exhibition, read Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art by Eileen Chanin, Steven Miller and Judith Pugh, Miegunyah Press, 2005 (see front cover above).


P. M. Doolan said...

Very interesting. Remarkable how some in the art world reacted, like you point out, similar to the views of the Nazis. Glad to see you correcting the great robert Hughes. Well, at least all of these paintings remained safe in Australia during the war, so the tour may have been a blessing in disguise.

ChrisJ said...

Excellent post. There are so many stories from around the world that tell of the resrtictions (and worse) on art and artists - unfortunately they still happen.

Still, without the likes of the French Academies, we probably wouldn't have Modern Art as it is - the restrictions and status quo end up fostering the very thing they so hate.

Vive l'art.

Hermes said...

Another great post. There was a reaction around the world to experimentation in art, music and books which the Nazi's followed a lead set by eg. Wagner. Its a fascinating period ful of weird racial theories that affected reactions to jazz and modern painting styles. Its a story that I don't think has been fully told yet, and still lingers on in conservative circles.

Hels said...

Thank you everybody. Censorship, by legislation (as it was in Germany), or by banning the art from the big state funded galleries (as it was in Australia) was unacceptable to almost everyone, even those who disliked modern art.

Could the forces of traditionalism acted otherwise? Of course! The Australian Academy of Art, founded in 1937, had three art exhibitions, in 1938, 1939 and 1940. They could have publicised the art they admired and published lots of articles on why traditional art was better. The public might have been persuaded, or not.

Karena said...

Helen, so fascinating, thank you for sharing. I would love to read more about this. Just imagine, it is astounding the art that was ignored or worse!


Art by Karena

John Hopper said...

A sobering and perhaps uncomfortable fact that reactionary ideas and beliefs were not entirely limited to the Nazi party. A great and informative post, and as always, you have the habit of lifting the edge of the tidy carpet of social history revealing some unsavoury facts that have been brushed under and mostly forgotten.

ty_buchanan said...

If the rejection of Modernism eventually failed why is the myth that Modernism only lasted from 1913 (some say 1905) to 1939 still promulgated in the Australian academic press?

Hels said...

Ty, it depends who you are reading. Modernism was never rejected.. look at Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, John Per­c­eval, Josl Bergner and Arthur Boyd in the post WW2 era, for example. http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2009/01/yosl-bergner-australian-years.html

But but some critics were indeed very vulgar in the interim.

Hels said...


I have not yet read J F Williams' book "The Quarantined Culture: Australian Reactions to Modernism 1913–1939". It was published by Cambridge University Press in Melbourne in 1995. If you have, let me know if it is helpful to this discussion.

Unknown said...

Each one of your blog posts opens up a new world to me - I really enjoy coming here. hope 2014 treats you well.

Offer Waterman & Co.

Hels said...

thank you.

I still have the Eileen Chanin et al book about the 1939 exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, and refer back to it often.

But more and more books, journal articles and exhibitions are coming out about British art in the inter-war years and that is where I am learning every day.

Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival said...

Welcome to the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival
31st May - 2nd June 2014. A carnival of words and language, of storytelling and reading, of intellectual enquiry, the Festival showcases 60 Australian and international guests who explore important themes. Including "The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art".

Michael H said...

Hi Helen

I came across one of your blog postings referring to Basil Burdett. Basil was my grandfather and I am in the process of trying to collect as much information about him as I can. In your bog you said that "he counted Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein among his friends". I always new that he must have moved in these circles, but I wonder if you have a source for these these specific details? I would be very interested to have a discussion with you about this topic if you are interested.

Kind Regards

Hels said...


your grandfather must have been special. Journalist, gallery owner, magazine editor, art critique.... *sigh* .... what a professional all rounder.

I am so sorry I didn't put my references into the post. I used Australian Dictionary of Biography and The Australian (4/3/2005).

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Hels said...


Thank you.

I don't do ads, so I only published your comment only because some readers might want to ask your advice on the new and unexposed artists they don't recognise.

Reenart Gallery said...
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