Visual Arts

The trumpet of modernism in Australian Art: TarraWarra Museum of Art (Melbourne)

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How noisy is a triumph? Does Modernism look like the past in the 21st century?

A brilliant wintry Sunday through the countryside, silver sun glinting on leaves as they turn like a school of fish in the wind. We arrived at TarraWarra Museum of Art, post-yum cha and coffee, replete and receptive to an afternoon ringing with The Triumph of Modernism in the Art of Australia.

You can go through an exhibition and come out only having noticed individual paintings — and these were nearly all paintings. Not here: this exhibition insists strongly on the note of triumph in Australia’s embrace of modernism –mostly over the second half of the last century, Australian art and artists being latecomers to the party.

(John Olsen, Salute to Cerberus 1965
, oil on plywood, 185 x 244.5 cm. TarraWarra Museum of Art collection. Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO 2001.)

To quote the press release: ‘Commissioned by Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre [already exhibited there] in New South Wales, The Triumph of Modernism in the Art of Australia presents a compelling view of the emergence of Australian modernism, with works dating from 1935 through to 2012.’ It’s impressive that the sixty works are all drawn from the collection of the TarraWarra Museum of Art, from Drysdale in the front room to Arkley at the back. As Marc Besen, the billionaire creator of TarraWarra, said in his opening address, it is the ‘permanent home of our collection.’ Most of the wall texts attributes the pictures as gifts from the Besens.

Unsurprisingly the rollcall is deeply familiar: Ian Fairweather and William Dobell (a beautiful tiny study of Margaret Olley for the Archibald portrait). Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, John Perceval and Charles Blackman. John Brack, George Baldessin. Roger Kemp and Godfrey Miller — always a blast of cool rigour in any company — likewise the witty Edwin Tanner.

Contrasting landscapists Fred Williams and William Delafield Cook share a space. Jeffrey Smart facing a very large log by Tim Storrier. Whiteley, Whiteley, Whiteley and Whiteley. Olsen, Tillers and Arkley. Joy Hester, Aida Tomescu and Joanna Lamb — not many women (no Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington-Smith or Clarice Beckett, or Rosalie Gascoigne).

A jaded female acquaintance thought, perhaps: The Tedium of Modernism in Australian Art.

(Jeffrey Smart, The dome 1977, oil and acrylic on canvas, 74.5 x 74.4 cm. Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2008, TarraWarra Museum of Art collection.)

Still, it’s good to look over the old favourites, most of them well reproduced in many publications. They are like the classics of Australian modernism — but also it could be said, slightly glazed from too much regard, overfamiliarity, the eye slides off them. A useful thing to do is to test how well your memory stands up to the pictures and vice versa. Sometimes they do look better in your imagination. Anyway, despite their ubiquity, the early Freds stand up beautifully.

Edmund Capon curated the show and it includes a couple of artists who worked at the AGNSW. The great Tony Tuckson, of course, and another abstractionist, William Wright, who passed away last year. Wright is represented by a gem, a large square cut emerald: Bay 1966, acquired 2014. A golden stripe of daffodil caught my eye and looking from side on reveals Bay as a yellow painting drenched in hues of blue. I’m guessing Wright covered the canvas with the chrome yellow and layered on blue and green, or maybe just blue — where the green shimmers is where the blue is thinner.

(William Wright, Bay 1966, acrylic and oil on canvas. Acquired 2014, TarraWarra Museum of Art collection.)

Bay is a meadow of green silence in a busy, colourful, heavily figurative show. A man I was standing with, a well-known literary figure, said that he might well have walked past it, but having stopped found that it held his attention. Colour field abstraction and minimalism are slow kinds of art; strands that on evidence did not attract the Besens during the heyday of painters like Wright and Robert Jacks.

The show leaves me with a particular idea of what kind of kind of Modernism triumphed here —  a noisily, busily populated figuration, full of a particular animal spirit that spilled over from the rebel days of the Penguins. It’s parochial, in a generally good way, in its distinctiveness of style and character. Not so good when it feels like the artists are digging a rut — but just saying that makes me think how unhelpful generalisation can be, and how much depends on what one already knows and where one’s taste lies (though that last phrase is a punning falsehood — Samuel Johnson: ‘Yes, sir, no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures’). One may have a critically-tuned response — but it’s still, and maybe only, personal.


Youtube: Patrick McCaughey and TarraWarra’s director, Victoria Lynn, et al on the show.

TarraWarra Museum of Art, 311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville, Victoria. Exhibition Admission: 20 June – 16 August 2015. Adults $7.50, Seniors $5.00. Concession free entry (including children under 16, students & pension card holders)

One response to “The trumpet of modernism in Australian Art: TarraWarra Museum of Art (Melbourne)

  1. I loved this piece. So glad you mentioned The Penguins for they, and the associated birth of Contemporary Art Societies, were indeed a crucible.

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