19 September 2017

Brave New World - Australia in the 1930s

Brave New World: Australia 1930s is a special exhibition at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV in Melbourne until mid Oct 2017. The 1930s was a turbulent time in Aus­tralia’s history.  Major world events, includ­ing the Depression and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, shap­ed our nation’s evolving sense of identity during this decade.

See a multitude of art­istic styles, both progressive and reactionary, which were practised during the 1930s: fash­ion, commercial art, architecture, industrial design, film and dance. The exhibition presents a  detailed picture of this dynamic time and reveals some of the social and political concerns that were pertinent then.

The life saver and the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Celebrating the bridge's opening in 1932

The exhibition charts the themes of technological pro­g­ress and its antithesis in the nostalgia for pastoralism; the emer­gence of the New Woman; nationalism and the body culture movement; mounting calls for Indigenous rights and the increasing interest in Indigenous art; the devastating effects of the Depress­ion and the rise of radical politics; and the arrival of European refugees. During the very turbulent 1930s high-rise buildings, fast trains and engineering marvels like the Sydney Harbour Bridge were up against the Great Depression, con­ser­vatism and a looming WW2.

The Brave New World Exhibition is accompanied by a top quality, fully-illustrated hardback publication, featuring essays by leading writers on each of the exhibition themes.

Artist and Designers
The exhibition presented 200+ works spanning photography, painting, printmaking, sculpture and décor­at­ive arts as well as design, fashion, film and dance. Abstraction, Surrealism and Expressionism emerg­ed, and women artists arose as trailblazers of modernism. Consider modernist artist Grace Cossington Smith with her flat colours and abstracted forms. And Hilda Rix Nicholas.

Modernism in architecture, interior design, industrial design and advertising was becoming fashionable. In Melbourne a group of designers was the first to pioneer modern design in Australia eg furniture designer Fred Ward at his home-furniture workshop in Eaglemont. In 1932 Ward opened a shop in the City, selling furniture, linens and Scandinavian glass. Fabrics for curtains and upholstery were printed by Australian designer Michael O’Connell with bold designs.

When Robert Menzies (later Prime Minister) proposed the form­at­ion of an Australian Academy of Art, Melbourne modernists were con­cerned that their departure from conventional art would be marginalised. Especially when Menzies opened the Victorian Artists' Society show in April 1937 and singled out for attack a wall of modernist art.

It took time before design and architecture became closely integ­rated with the changing realities of contemporary life... when the last vestiges of the conservative art establishment were unpopular.

Fashioning the modern woman
In the 1930s the new Modern Woman emerged as a more serious version of the dizzy 1920s flapper. A working woman, she often lived alone in a new block of flats, vis­ited night clubs and show­ed less interest in traditional marriage and child rearing. And she valued loved urban living, freedom and equality. With clothes introduced by French cout­urier Jean Patou in 1929, her lean body type was enhanced by leng­th­ened hemlines and defined waists. In addition to the clothes, the Modern Woman was fashioned through her gestures, behaviours, beliefs and self presentation (eg smoking casually).

The Modern Woman became one of the most potent images of  1930s life, being celebrated in women’s magazines like "Australian Women’s Weekly", launched in 1933. Such magazines congrat­ulated the Modern Woman and promoted new con­sumer goods to her, yet at the same time she was criticised by conservative comment­ators.
Portrait of modernist artist Peggie Crombie, 
painted by Sybil Craig
1932, NGV.

Sun and Surf 
The beach was a complex location in the Australian creative imagin­ation. It was a democratic site in which the trappings of wealth were abandoned as people stripped down to their bathers. It was a place of hedonistic pleasures that offered sensuous engagement with sun and surf, where natural forces restored exhausted city bodies.

Note artist/photographer Max Dupain’s iconic depictions of the Australian body and beach culture. It was a tourist play ground that was considered distinctively Australian. Male lifesavers were used by artists in promoting Australia to tour­ists: a poster commemor­at­ing the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening in 1932 cited the lifesaver as the quintessential representative of Australian manhood and virility. His muscles were as strong as the steel girders above.

The lifesavers that helped protect the beach-going public were reg­ularly praised as physical exemplars who could build the eugenic stock of the nation. As WW2 approached, the conn­ection of these trained lifesavers to military servicemen bec­ame painfully apparent.

The body beautiful
The terrible physical losses and psychological traumas of WW1 changed Australian society and prompted anxiety about our strength. For some this meant an inward-looking isolat­ionism, a desire that Australian culture should develop untouched by the degenerate influences of Europe. The search for rejuvenation involved explorations of the vulnerabilities of the human body. For artists, corporeal forms came to symbolise nationhood, often expressed via Classical Greek art. So the evolution of a new Australian type was proposed – a white Australian drawn from British stock, but with an athletic and streamlined shape honed by years spent swimming and surfing on local beaches.

Enthusiasm for body culture with its undesirable fascistic overtones is now seen as problematic.

Dance in Australia
Modern dance embodied the 1930s’ restless vitality and the quest for a different kind of subjectivity and expression. To many, modern dance was the pivotal art form for a mid C20th concerned with plast­icity, the expressive body and tensions between the individual and its collective formation.

The 1930s were framed by the 1928–29 tour of Anna Pavlova’s Dance Company and the three tours of the remnant Ballets Russes companies (1936–40) that excited many aspiring modernist art­ists. These tours predicted subsequent ballet narratives in Aust­ral­ia, because the eruption of war in 1939 meant that Ballets Russes dancers, including Helene Kirsova and Edouard Borovansky, stayed here and established ballet companies.

Aboriginal Art and Culture
During the 1930s the Australian Government continued to enforce a divide and rule assimilationist policy. Determined by eugenics, this entailed removing Aboriginal people of mixed descent from their families and reserves, and absorbing them into the dominant Anglo society. Increas­ingly, Aboriginal people formed their own organisations and agitated for full citizenship rights.

The exhibition explores artists’ responses to the call for Indig­enous rights during the 1930s. Albert Namatjira astonished Melbourne audiences at his first solo exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1938. His 41 watercolour paintings sold in three days! The following year South Aust­ralia’a Art Gallery purchased one of Namatjira’s works. Indigenous art also in­spired non-Indigenous artists like Margaret Preston, who appropriated design elements in their works, to travel to the outback to appreciate Indigenous history.

Australia tuned into the world by radio
Radios in the 1930s at a time when this new method of communication became an integral part of every home. They reflect the rapid spread of the streamlined style to Australia from Europe and the USA, where industrial designers applied machine-age styling to everyday house­hold appliances. The use of new synthetic plastics (Bakelite) and mass production helped to make radios affordable for ordinary people, even during the Dep­ression, and radio transmission brought the world into every Aust­ralian home.

Colourful and elegant radios of the 1930s are now loved as core examples of Art Deco styling, and one of the first expressions of art meeting industry. Alas the exhibition’s radios were too high for my grandchildren to see, to change channels and to listen to an old news broadcast.

The Great Depression and the brave new world of cities
Unemployment rate rose to 32% by 1932, second only to Germany in awfulness. The photographer F. Oswald Barnett displayed powerful images of impoverished inner Melbourne suburbs, with hungry children and decrepit houses. In paintings we see similar images, firstly in the works of emigres Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner. Then Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker became committed to depicting Australia’s unemployed workers and destitute families.

The towering Manchester Unity Building emerged in Melbourne
in 1932, giving employment to Depression-hit workers.

Efficiency and speed depicted modernity. Many artists celebrated the city and technological advancements in works utilis­ing hard-edged forms, flat colours and dyn­amic compositions. The engineering marvel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened in 1932, fascinated artists, as did city buildings, industry and modern transport.

The skyscraper was THE powerful symbol of modernity, once the Great Depression seemed to stop progress. In 1932, as the Depression hit rock bottom, Melbourne’s tallest building was opened: Man­chester Unity Build­ing. With its ornam­ental tower and tall spire, the building became a new symbol of enterprise and confidence, and provided much-needed employment during the Depression.

Efficiency, speed and great design depicted modernity
Poster of The Victorian Railways, 1937

Australia's pastoral cult
A national myth evolved around the Australian bush. Although most Australians lived in cities, the post-WW1 nation learned that the bush was a nostalgic touchstone of trad­itional values. The classical pastoral ideal of a land in which only sheep and cattle roam became a dominant theme in landscape art. Elioth Gruner depicted the Aust­ral­­ian bush as a respite from the frenetic pace of modern city life.

Pastoral landscapes were admired above all as representing the ant­ithesis of decadent modern life. Conservative gallery director JS Macdonald said such art would point the way in which life should be lived in Australia, with the maximum of flocks and the minimum of factories. Of course such works affirmed white landownership.


Mike@Bit About Britain said...

A fascinating post - really enjoyed it. The exhibition sounds as though it was/is absorbing. Does 'body culture' have undesirable fascistic overtones? Potentially narcissistic, but not necessarily political.

Andrew said...

Ah, that wonderful stylised photo of the Spirit. Our Friend from Japan has been here visiting and saw the exhibition. I am so excited in anticipation of seeing it and you have stimulated me even more.

bazza said...

My thoughts echo Mike's, above. Although geographically isolated Australia was no less immune to Futurism, Modernism, the Art Deco movement etc. I suppose my thinking about Australia has always lazily seen it as Europe 'down there' so the reinforcing of a national identity was/is important. I would love to have seen that exhibition.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s meretricious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Deb said...

I also took my older grandchildren who loved the three dimensional pieces like furniture and radios. They did not love the posters or paintings as much.

Hels said...


in shaping a healthy, fit, lean and muscular body, the German Fascists (and perhaps others) depicted their men almost a political symbol. These men were encouraged to have perfect babies, join the Party and be proud of their nationalist displays.

That had nothing whatsoever to do with Australian men of course, but the timing was impeccable.

Hels said...


those posters of fast trains, 1930s cars, muscular tall buildings and sleek greyhounds were very Deco and full of pride. Despite the hideous Depression, this was a decade of optimism and confidence for many Australians.

Hels said...


modernism in art, architecture, clothes, cars, industry etc was all over the developed world. If we couldn't create stuff ourselves, we sent our young designers overseas to learn Art Deco etc and create it here.

But to create a national identity, separate from sheep, gum trees and kangaroos, was a separate issue, as you note. WW1 ANZAC soldiers did it from 1914 on, but by 1930 we were looking for Australian modernity in peace time.

Hels said...


I agree, for two reasons. Firstly children have trouble understanding concepts in two dimensions. A dress on a life-size model means a great deal more to a child than a drawing of the same dress in a women's magazine. (And to me too, I suspect).

Secondly Art Deco was a bulked-up art style that depended on height, speed, geometrical shapes and minimalist decoration. No fainting 1890s women who got their exercise from sniffing flowers in the garden.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It seems that all the pictures and examples you give could also have been taken straight from America, where the same forces were having effect. For example, although it doesn't sport an arched center section, look at photos of Cleveland's Carnegie-Lorain Bridge.

I'll grant you the world-famous life-guards are Australia's unique property. And Peggie Crombie looks great (I also looked up her work, which is quite admirable).

Hels said...


couldn't agree with you more. After all, my all time favourite modernist-feminist-Art Deco artist was Tamara de Lempicka, a Polish woman who became famous when she lived in Paris in the decades until WW2 broke out in 1939. Then she remained famous in the USA.