Making Modernism. Sydney Excursion to the exhibition of Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Georgia O’Keeffe

Jul 27, 2017

A chilly, bright winter’s morning saw the start of what proved to be a most rewarding trip to the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition Making Modernism depicting the works of three remarkable artists, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Georgia O’Keefe.

Our first step was “Cossington” the home of Grace Cossington Smith for over six decades. Built originally to accommodate Quaker meetings, in semi-rural Turramurra, the home was first rented by Grace’s father, Ernest Smith, in 1914 and subsequently bought by him in 1920. We were met by Ron Ramsey who introduced us to Grace’s niece, Ann, the present homeowner. It was of particular interest to visualise the interiors as they were during the 1940’s and 50’s when Cossington Smith painted some of these rooms and the outlook beyond them- seen in the exhibition works such as Interior with Wardrobe Mirror, 1955 and The Window 1956.

There have been some changes to the house, and the studio built for Grace by her father in the garden is no longer there. Grace’s niece indicated the space inside the house which later became the studio and where today a variety of memorabilia associated with the artist is displayed. The tennis court remains and it is the markings of this court that can be seen in Trees, c.1927 a painting in the exhibition that is very familiar to us as it was purchased by the Newcastle Art Gallery in 1967.

After an excellent lunch at AGNSW’s restaurant, Chiswick, the Curator of Australian Art at the Gallery, Denise Mimmochi, introduced us to the works in Making Modernism. Working quite independently the 3 artists, two Australian and one American, were determined to find a new, fresh and modern way to communicate their art to paint scenes, objects, nature and landscapes that were close to them. Cossington Smith wrote “all form-landscape, interiors, still life, flowers, animals, people-has an inarticulate grace and beauty: painting to me is expressing this form in colour, colour vibrant with life-but containing this other, soul and quality which is unconscious and belongs to all things created” (1969 “Present Day Art in Australia”).


Margaret Preston’s wonderful still-life paintings, woodcuts, her connection with indigenous art and her later landscapes showcased her ability to adapt her style to the changing world around her. Preston was always committed to the development of a national cultural identity. As indeed was Grace Cossington Smith and Georgia O’Keefe.

O’Keefe painted still life, particularly flowers, taking the viewer into the heart of the painting. An example was Untitled; Purple Petunia, 1925. Her love of the landscape saw her painting the landscapes she came to know so well – the New York City skyscrapers, the scenery around Lake George and finally the mountains and cliffs near her home in New Mexico. With Untitled; Red & Yellow Cliffs, 1940, one is immediately drawn to the amazing light and colour of the desert terrain. Just as Margaret Preston had looked to Aboriginal Art, O’Keefe painted the religious arts of the Hispanic and Indigenous cultures. Her feeling for the abstract can be seen in her early work Blue Line, 1919 and later work Pelvis, 1944. She once observed: “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense.”

The excellent catalogue to the exhibition is a worthwhile purchase from the Gallery shop.

All in all, a well-organised excursion, convivial company and wonderful art!

Margaret Tonkin