Review

Exhibition Review: O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism

picmonkey-collageLeft to Right: Grace Cossington Smith’s The Sock Knitter, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Purple Hills Ghost Ranch 2, Margaret Preston’s Western Australian gum blossom. Above works are displayed at the exhibition.

What:  O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism

Where: Heide Museum of Modern Art

When: Until 19 February 2017

How much: Concession $18, adults $22 

Never has a venue been more suited to an exhibition than the Heide, especially to highlight the works of three masters of the genre of modern art.  Making Modernism brings together selected works from the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and two of Australia’s most well-known modernists Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith. Co-curated by Lesley Harding from the Heide, and Cody Hartley and Carolyn Kastner from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, the exhibition takes up the entire primary exhibition space at the Heide with over sixty works displayed. These works consist of paintings, works on paper (including sketchbooks) and prints.

As you enter the exhibition space you are greeted by a dividing wall that forms a separation between the works of Margaret Preston on the left, and those of Grace Cossington Smith on the right. This temporary wall also blocks the view to visitors of the Georgia O’Keeffe works in the rear room from the entrance. The works from each artist are hung in their designated space in themed groupings that included still life’s, landscapes and floral motifs with both stylised and abstract representations exhibited. To the disconcerting visitor or the modernist scholar, to place these three artists together in one exhibition may appear odd. There is no evidence that O’Keeffe knew of her modernist counterparts across the Pacific and vice versa. What brings these artists together, however, is their innovativeness in forging lasting careers for themselves and pushing boundaries; in their respective homelands where they embraced the ‘modernist’ style in their own distinctive way.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-6-37-11-pmMargaret Preston, Implement Blue, 1927, oil on canvas on hardboard, 42.5 cm x 43 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, gift of the artist 1960.

While the works of O’Keeffe were primarily borrowed from her museum in Sante Fe, the works of Preston and Cossington Smith were collected from around Australia that included most of the major galleries and private collections. It must have been difficult for the curators to decide on which artworks to include considering the extensive oeuvre of each artist. For those of us who have studied modernism, the most well-known works are here including Margaret Preston’s Implement Blue from 1927 (above), Aboriginal Flowers from 1928 and her 1941 painting, Aboriginal Landscape, currently on loan from the Art Gallery of South Australia. Many of Preston’s hand-coloured woodcuts have also been included.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-6-38-03-pmGrace Cossington Smith, The Window, 1956, oil on hardboard, 121.9 cm x 91.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, gift of Graham and Judy Martin 2014.

For Cossington Smith, one of the first things you notice about her work is her application of paint. Each stroke of the brush is highly considered with outcomes more akin to a Monet than of other modernists. She made this painterly style her own. The Window (1956) is just one of her many works included in this exhibition. Often viewed in print, it’s not until you observe the painting in person can one really appreciate the vivacity and beauty of the work. It actually takes your breath away. Her many landscapes including Landscape at Pentecost (1929), and possibly one of her most well-known paintings, The Sock Knitter, from 1915 has also been included.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-6-39-00-pmGeorgia O’Keeffe, Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938, oil on Canvas, 50.8 cm x 76.2 cm, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, gift of the Burnett Foundation 2007.

The rear and side rooms of the gallery were set aside for the O’Keefe paintings. In the smaller side room, a documentary video on the artist was being screened with a selection of her sketchbooks displayed at the rear of the room. Married to the well-known American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keefe’s arts practice hovered between abstract portrayals of flowers, to Santa Fe desert landscapes, and in the process, transitioned from watercolour to oils. The colour blue features predominantly in many of her paintings, including Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory from 1938. Animal skulls were a fascination for O’Keeffe and she often used them as subjects in her work, incorporating them into staged still life’s.

O’Keeffe was a prolific painter and this exhibition could have just been about this one artist. Instead, the curators have included Preston and Cossington Smith as a comparison in style and methods while keeping to the modernist aesthetic. While both Australian artists toured extensively in Europe, O’Keeffe stayed local to her origins with the uniquely American subjects of her artwork taking centre stage. What they do have in common however, is their bold use of colour albeit their differences in technique and approach. It is an exhibition definitely worth seeing and although visitors weren’t allowed to take photographs, the accompanying catalogue contains a comprehensive list of all works with detailed artwork information, essays and biographies of the artists.

4.5 out of 5 stars

– Kylie Macey

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