‘O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism’ celebrates the work of three pioneering artists who made distinguished contributions to the development of international modernism.
All born in the late nineteenth century, American painter Georgia O’Keeffe and Australian artists Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith came of age during the 1910s and ’20s, decades of great social and cultural transition. While they were not connected by personal familiarity or direct correspondence, they were kindred spirits, rejecting the artistic conventions of the past and forging new ways of picturing the changing world.
United by their love of nature, O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith developed subjects from their immediate surroundings into distinct interpretations of place. O’Keeffe synthesised the forms and lines of the New Mexico high desert to share her experience of its vast and ancient landscape, while Preston articulated the primordial character of the native environment in her pursuit of a uniquely Australian aesthetic. Cossington Smith painted glowing and intimate landscapes based on views within easy reach of her semi-rural home in Sydney’s outer suburbs.
Petunia No. 2 is one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s earliest large-scale flower paintings. It was included in an exhibition Alfred Stieglitz organised at the Anderson Galleries in 1925, the first year O’Keeffe’s now celebrated large flower paintings were exhibited.
Dispensing with the conventional vase or bouquet arrangement and the contrived arena of the studio still life, O’Keeffe filled the composition with two Petunia blossoms in close-up view. The open, free-floating forms invite us to gaze into their centres and study the shapes and textures of their petals.
For O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith, the still life was a laboratory table. It enabled them to paint things real to their worlds, was a vehicle for their love of nature, and facilitated a form of truth.
Western Australian Gum Blossom is one of a group of paintings by Preston from the 1920s remarkable for their simplicity of design and restrained use of colour.
Foregrounding the artist’s skill in finding geometric order in organic forms, the painting assimilates the primeval appearance of the eucalypt with Preston’s taut modernist aesthetic by way of a strikingly simple vertical axis. The composition acknowledges Cubism in its facture and by showing the plant ‘in the round’, while the abstract, planar background nods to constructivist design. Though the picture is contrived and exacting, it is also emblematic, as by now Preston had commited to painting native flowers as part of her quest to create a uniquely Australian national art.
Cossington Smith held her debut solo exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries in Sydney in 1928. The paintings comprised some of her most courageous images to date, including the much-lauded Trees—a tapestry of colour, form and staccato brushwork in which the tennis court in the foreground is subsumed by the radiating forms of abundant plant life.
The artist’s friend and advocate Ethel Anderson reviewed the show for the Sydney Morning Herald, acknowledging that the paintings were full of the beauty of everyday experience and praising their illuminating qualities:
Miss Grace Cossington Smith’s pictures … have the cool elegance of hail, or cherry blossom in a spring shower. They are high pitched and clear, like sheep-bells heard on a windy day. And they are all happy pictures …
The genre of still life was a touchstone—flower painting in particular. Each artist transformed the traditional art form into a pictorial vehicle more relevant to the modern age. Whereas O’Keeffe filled her compositions from edge to edge with magnified and abstracted blooms, Preston looked to the structural possibilities of her floral motifs, focusing on design and pattern. Cossington Smith preferred to paint her plants and blossoms as they grew in situ, lending her images a sense of living energy.
Ambitious and steadfast in their pursuit of a modernism distinct from European traditions, these three artists were profoundly aware of the need for a visual language that suitably expressed the unique qualities of their own countries. Their contributions to national culture show the shared contours of American and Australian art histories, and at the same time reveal the broader story of modernism’s evolution around the world.
The exhibition is presented by the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and QAGOMA, in partnership with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, and supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Gordon Darling Foundation.