07 May 2009

Grace Cossington Smith: her early career

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was born in Sydney to English par­ents. She began art classes in Dattilo Rubbo’s Sydney studio in 1910, alongside two other young artists who later became famous, Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre. Young ladies were al­lowed to study there two days a week, so she was fortunate at least to have access to any good training. Once they were living in the country, however, her access to classes was limited to when her father could accompany her.

This overweening protection of unmarried daughters leads me to ask how her parents allowed her travel to Europe alone. We know she did attend the Winchester School of Art in Britain and an art academy in Stettin, Germany 1912-4.

Cossington Smith ret­urned to Sydney and resumed classes with Dattilo Rubbo in 1914. It isn’t surprising that her work reflected her somewhat const­ricted middle-class suburban life, devoted to art and depicting the environment about her. Her early career paintings were conc­ern­ed with form and colour.

The Sock Knitter 1915 (L); Troops Marching 1917 (R)

Cossington Smith was rec­ognised for her contribution to the dev­el­op­ment of a mo­dernist idiom as early as 1915, just when war was domin­ating the lives of Austral­ian families. A painting of Grace’s sister doing war work, Sock Knitter 1915. Now this painting is thought of as a key picture in the modernist movement and makes me think of Henri Matisse’s colour. There were many post-Im­press­ionists in the world then, but it was Matisse who seemed to create colours that the Australians could best identify with.

The Old Paint blog managed to find a painting that I have never seen before: Grace Cossington Smith, Quaker Girl, 1915. Our fellow blogg­ers are better than the reference books I traditionally rely upon! Blue Mountains Knits blog was also useful on The Sock Knitter: Grace Cossington Smith.

Grace’s rather uneventful life was entirely de­v­oted to art, and covered important social issues that affec­t­ed Aus­t­ralia. She was essentially a reporter of cont­em­p­orary city life. Her urban im­ages were bustling, crowded and unmistakably of her time. Troops Marching 1917 ill­ust­rat­ed the growing and busy urb­an Austral­ian streetscape, and the horrible war. The viewer cannot see the sold­iers’ faces but the wives and mothers’ hankies and dresses stood out clearly.

In 1917 Australia held a referendum on conscrip-tion for WW1. The mot­ion was defeated, much to Grace’s disgust. While men were dying in Europe, she had no time for the men who remained at home. She was equally hard-nosed about workers going on strike. Her strong views were shown in this small but emot­ional image of a Strike. I have no idea if she was paint­ing an actual strike; wartime strikes were often in the news and emotions were running high.

However it was not until her work with Wakelin and de Maistre and the formation of the Cont­emporary Group in 1926 that the real ch­ar­ac­ter of Grace’s life work began to emerge. De Maistre's colour mus­ic work was never truly abstract; he always had a subject in HIS mind, whatever the viewer might have thought. After de Maistre organised her first show in 1926, Cossington Smith’s art sh­ared many of the same tech­niques as de Maistre's: criss-crossing lines that separated planes of discrete colours, in sequence. And her palette seemed similar to those of de Maistre and Wakel­in.
The blog my art essays (Sept 2005) suggested that many of her paint­ings from this era were close to being in the style of con­temporary Sydney painters. I don’t know the other contemporary Sydney painters well, but I certainly agree that her pain­t­ings showed objects being broken down into forms based on their colours similar to Cezanne, and had a Cubist manipulation of some of the imagery.
East Rd Turramurra, c1926

Cossington Smith carefully planned the composition of the water col­our Eastern Rd Turramurra c1926. A prelimin­ary drawing was made in a sketchbook and a grid structure marked over the compos­ition. Colour notes were recorded on the page along side. For this water-col­our, she developed the drawing in detail in pencil, as guide for the precise placement of colour. This degree of prepar­at­ion was unusual.
Landscape at Pentacost, 1929

Cossington Smith looked for a spiritual aspect in her images eg Land­scape at Pentecost 1929. The hills in the farming district of Pentecost showed her skills in both design and colour, but they showed more: a view of the energetic countryside, filled with a road lead­ing off over the horizon. Before the Great Depression struck, the countryside seemed full of optimism.

She was a single woman who lived her much of her adult life in Syd­ney. As with many Sydney-siders, construction of the iconic Harb­our Bridge fascinated Grace eg Curve of the Bridge c1929. Even in this industrial and perhaps ugly building process, we can see the ar­t­ist’s use of col­our to display form and depth. If there was a certain emotional content as well, only the artist could say for sure.

Grace created many drawings and paintings based on the growing arch­itecture of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I can only guess why. An ind­iv­­idual artist could do nothing about the tragedy of World War One, except to depict images of heroism, sacrifice and loss. The Great Depression, potentially just as tragic, offered great symbols of hope and energy. The bridge was a symbol of modernity, growth, employment. The bridge was formally opened in March 1932.
Curve of the Bridge, 1929

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Viola said...

I really like Cossington-Smith's and Matisse's paintings. It's a pity that she had an uneventful life. Perhaps we just don't know enough about it?

It's surprising that she agreed with conscription but perhaps many people did in those days.

Thank you very much for this post, Hels.

Anonymous said...

I'm researching Grace Cossington Smith as amazingly I just discovered she sketched the room I'm typing this from! http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail-LRG.cfm?IRN=135890&View=LRG - as well as a number of sketches of the house and surrounding village - Trusham, Devon England. They are from a sketchbook currently held in the National Gallery of Australia.

She came to visit her cousin here in March 1949 and I would love to know if she ever painted scenes of Trusham or any of the houses as many of us in the village would like to see more if they exist. If any relatives of Grace see this do get in touch!

Thanks for the great post.