The 1930s were bookended by two devastating global events: the Great Depression and World War II. While most of us are familiar with the human toll these took on Australia, less is known about how life was in this country in those intervening years.
The new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Brave New World: Australia 1930s illustrates and animates this decade with over 200 paintings, sculptures, photographs, posters, magazine covers and examples of industrial design, furniture, architecture, fashion, film and even dance.
The effects of the Depression and the coming war are ever present, but the exhibition provides a more complex and detailed look at the 1930s in Australia, revealing it to be a vibrant, but tumultuous time, in which new ideas and movements jostled and clashed as the country was quickly modernising.
“We wanted to show that there was an idealised view of world, but there was a critical current” – Isobel Crombie.
“The ’30s is a bit of an under-investigated period,” says Isobel Crombie, co-curator of the show (with Elena Taylor) and the assitant director of the NGV in Melbourne. “People have looked at the rise of modernism in the period and the Depression, but rarely have people looked at the conservative impulses that emerged alongside the most modern impulses.
“We wanted to show that there was an idealised view of world, but there was a critical current.”
While the 1930s is usually associated with the streamlined style of Art Deco and its influence on fashion, textiles and architecture, Brave New World: Australia 1930s goes beyond that glossy optimism. This was a period in which art found new forms in Expressionism, Social Realism and Surrealism as artists reacted to the ideas of Communism, the urbanisation of Australia, an awareness of Indigenous Australia and the rise of Fascism in Europe. These fed a growing interest in Eugenics, the idea of “race” and the cult of the body in lifesaving clubs, “Vitalism”, “new” dance and a fondness for including healthy, blonde lasses in tourism posters that would not have looked out of place in a German tourist bureau.
It’s no surprise that Crombie did her doctoral thesis on the photographer Max Dupain whose work, she says, formed the “intellectual springboard” for the show. His daring black and white photographs of nude, lean and angular men on the beach and of idealised, naked pregnant women, seen as “sacred vessels of maternity”, were influenced by German photography and Man Ray. It’s probably no accident that Dupain’s father, George, was a founder of a national fitness movement and believed in Eugenics.
“There’s a rupture. People look at new ways of forming a modern society”.
“Our thesis with this show is that the work is often made in response to the big social issues of the period,” explains Crombie. “It comes off the back of Word War I and the great schism that happens internationally where people think they can no longer work in the ways that they did. There’s a rupture. People look at new ways of forming a modern society.”
Whether the works of Dupain and his wife Olive Cotton, the Social Realism of Yosl Bergner or the Surrealism of James Gleeson, artists were reacting to and investigating the fractious world around them.
“We’re saying it (the art) was to do with complex discussions at the time including a utopianism but also an isolationism. People wanted to cut off what they were seeing in Europe as degenerate and forging a new Australia based on Australian values….a new form of Australian (made) from British stock but forged by Australian conditions.”
Many of the works have not been seen before and come from 20 private collections with works from the NGV and other public collections. Along with the furniture of Fred Ward and images of buildings designed by Frederick Romberg, there is an entire room of 40 brightly coloured Art Deco radios. Their inclusion is a reminder of the new consumerism led by women and how radio connected Australians to each other and the world.
The show is divided into different “chapters” opening with celebratory images of modern Australia with its new Sydney Harbour Bridge, known as the “iron lung”.
Artists represented in Brave New World: Australia 1930s include Grace Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston, Clarice Beckett, Arthur Boyd, F. Oswald Barnett, Sybil Craig, Danila Vassilieff, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Elioth Gruner, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Albert Namatjira, Charles Meere and Ivor Francis.
The show is grouped into a series of interconnected rooms or “chapters” opening with the mostly celebratory images of modern Australia. None more so than Cossington Smith’s painting of the new Sydney Harbour Bridge, then known as Australia’s “iron lung” for providing employment in a country which, when it was built in 1932, had a 32 per cent unemployment rate.
The Bridge was a favourite “utopian” image of the time and this optimism can be seen in the image of a poster for the fast train, “The Spirit of Progress”, high-end fabrics, paintings and advertising images of the “new woman” (idealised in angular Hollywood shape) and in film, photographs and stained glass of strapping male lifesavers marching in military formation.
These “utopian” images of Australia then give way to the second story of the exhibition which might be called “dystopian”. Those images of marching men are harbingers of the storm to come at the end of the decade when war finally arrived. A series of self-portraits reveal Albert Tucker appearing more psychologically distressed as the decade wears on. Bold and urgent covers from Masses and Proletariat magazines reinforce the unsettling times as Europe careened towards war. A self-portrait of Arthur Boyd reveals him worried beyond his 19 years.
Brave New World: Australia 1930s also has a chapter looking at the new interest in Aboriginal Australia marking the beginnings of agitation for citizenship rights. Inquisitive artists adopted Indigenous motifs in their own work, most notably in the woodcuts of Margaret Preston.
This exhibition has an emphasis on women artists of the time who embraced both modernism and conservatism.
“Today we’d say she appropriated Aboriginal motifs, but she would have seen it as a reinvigoration of artistic tradition,” comments Crombie.
This exhibition has an emphasis on leading women artists from the time who embraced both modernism and conservatism. Both “impulses” reflect the idealism and the realities of the time as more women began living alone in city flats and had more disposable income.
But not, of course, all women. The final chapter of the exhibition includes furniture made from kerosene cans and a woman’s affecting wedding present for her daughter; a quilt known as a “Wagga” made from scraps of drab coloured material, but stitched together with care, and perhaps optimism.
Brave New World: Australia 1930s is at the NGV, Federation Square until October 15
Isobel Crombie, Elena Taylor and a panel of experts on art of the period will speak at a forum, “The Turbulent Thirties” at the NGV’s Federation Square theatre on Saturday September 16 from 10am to 1.30pm. Click here for details.