Open Studio: Elizabeth Willing

 

In conceiving her multisensory and frequently edible artworks, Brisbane-based artist Elizabeth Willing aims to bring viewers into communion with her materials. For Open Studio (until 12 Feb 2023), Willing’s brings objects and research from her home workspace into conversation with artworks from the Gallery’s Collection and provides her with a platform from which to create new work that explores our complex relationship with food. Willing’s participatory practice revolves around food production, consumption, and the rituals and ethics of eating, resulting in layered experiences in which the non-visual senses are central.

Elizabeth Willing introduces the Open Studio installation

For the Open Studio project, Willing’s will design pieces of modular furniture that function either as autonomous artworks or as sites for audience engagement. Decorated with motifs that evoke both the butter icing piped onto children’s birthday cakes and the human digestive tract, the tables will either be hung flat against the wall of the space in their disassembled form or set up to allow Willing to hold workshops. Describing her proposal, she explains that ‘when the table splits and assembles [the design] will be fractured. The intestinal form has reoccurred many times in my work and has become a metaphor for a kind of internal hosting’.1

Elizabeth Willing creating a digital collage using novelty birthday cake images / Photograph: J Ruckli © QAGOMA

The idea of the body as host is one of several that Willing will explore during her Open Studio. The project will provide her with both the conceptual and physical space to experiment with speculative artworks that until now have lain dormant. As she has expressed:

My studio process requires physical spaces to test out new work, often these spaces are flexible, meaning [my] living space needs to fluctuate to accommodate the scale of different projects… [They are] often created in concise bursts, installed and deinstalled within a week, or rolled up/ rolled out again each day.2

For Open Studio, Willing brings the materials that inspire her research-based practice into the Gallery, allowing visitors to engage with her working methods. Drawings and journals will sit alongside the ‘stuff’ of her art, including recipe books on confectionary, herbal tinctures, and existing artworks such as the ‘mouth cups’ that she uses in her performance dinners. In the adjacent gallery space, Collection works Willing has selected for their gustatory references will extend the discourses running through her work, including the concept of:

the human digestive system as a filtering threshold for contemporary food technology… Much of the matter we ingest will pass through us and become mulch back on the land, though some will be indigestible, pollution, stuck in our systems, obstructing our organs, remaining as a parasite until our fossil records reveal these everlasting objects.3

Epitomising the objective of Open Studio to provide a space where artists can trial ideas and audiences can gain insight into their creative processes, Willing’s residency promises to be both illuminating and thought-provoking.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art.
This edited extract was originally published in the QAGOMA Members’ magazine, Artlines, no.3, 2022

Endnotes
1 & 2 Elizabeth Willing, ‘Open Studio Proposal’, 9 February 2022.
3 Elizabeth Willing, ‘Framing document’, 16 May 2022.

‘Open Studio: Elizabeth Willing’ / Queensland Art Gallery /  15 October 2022 – 12 February 2023
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Grace Cossington Smith’s modern world

 

Deep water, Bobbin Head c.1942 is a work that held special meaning for modernist Grace Cossington Smith, the artist captures the landscape at Bobbin Head, near her North Sydney home, in broad brushstrokes and iridescent colour.

Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984) became one of Australia’s most celebrated modernists, renowned for her iconic cityscapes and luminous interiors, which she painted from the relative seclusion of her family home on Sydney’s upper North Shore. Her iridescent, meditative landscape Deep water, Bobbin Head (illustrated) demonstrates her capacity to invest unassuming subjects with profound significance. Although modest in scale, the painting has great presence and epitomises her mantra that, ‘My chief interest, I think, has always been colour, but not flat crude colour — it must be colour within colour, it has to shine’.1

Grace Cossington Smith ‘Deep water, Bobbin Head’

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Deep water, Bobbin Head c.1942 / Oil on pulpboard / 39.5 x 44cm / Gift of Des Park through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2021. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

Bobbin Head

Bobbin Head, c.1940 / Photographs courtesy: Hornsby Shire Council

In characteristic style, Cossington Smith has sketched the view in broad brushstrokes, conveying a sense of the place rather than describing it in detail. With great economy, she has defined the landforms that lead down to the waterway, alluding briefly to trees and other vegetation. The yellow hues on the lower right, which signify an embankment, ground the vista, while the daubs of radiating blue at the top of the composition — a device that Cossington Smith used frequently — create a feeling of expansion. What is most striking, however, is the way that she has simultaneously suggested depth and flattened her picture plane. While the stippled bluegreen marks that describe the pool and the painting’s overlapping forms imply recession, the variegated rectangles of warm-toned colours that define the hill in the background conversely appear to advance. The critic, gallerist and Cossington Smith scholar Bruce James has commented on this aspect of the artwork, noting ‘its brutalising compression of space and compaction of form, an effect of continents colliding’.2

Grace Cossington Smith ‘Before the arches met’

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Before the arches met c.1930 / Crayon and coloured pencils over pencil on cream wove paper / 37.8 x 43.4cm / Purchased 1976. Godfrey Rivers Trust / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Grace Cossington Smith ‘Church interior’

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Church interior c.1941-42 (inscr. 1937) / Oil with pencil on pulpboard / 55.2 x 42.2cm / Purchased 2001 with funds raised through The Grace Cossington Smith Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

The painting is one of several landscapes that feature Bobbin Head, Bayview and Roseville, respectively, which the artist exhibited in 1942 in an exhibition at Macquarie Galleries that she shared with her friend, painter Enid Cambridge.3 The sites are all within easy reach of Cossington Smith’s home at Turramurra, Sydney. In this sense, they are as much a part of her personal history as the interiors for which she is known. Along with arresting images of the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, and St James Anglican Church, where the Smith family worshipped (including Church interior c.1941–42) (illustrated), the paintings are based on locales she knew and loved.

Margaret Preston ‘Hawkesbury Ranges – NSW winter’

Margaret Preston, Australia 1875-1963 / Hawkesbury Ranges – NSW winter 1946 / Monotype on thin smooth wove paper / 35 x 38cm (comp.) / Purchased 1948 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Preston/Copyright Agency

Margaret Preston ‘Hawkesbury Bridge, NSW’

Margaret Preston, Australia 1875-1963 / Hawkesbury Bridge, NSW 1946 / Monotype on thin laid Oriental paper / 37.5 x 35cm (comp.) / Purchased 1948 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Preston/Copyright Agency

Beyond celebrating her environs, Deep water, Bobbin Head reveals that Cossington Smith was engaged with the work of her contemporaries. There are, for instance, similarities between her painting and the monotypes of fellow modernist Margaret Preston who, from 1932, lived at Berowra, just north of Turramurra. Although Preston’s prints Hawkesbury Ranges – NSW winter 1946 (illustrated) and Hawkesbury Bridge, NSW 1946 (illustrated) are stylistically different, they reveal that Preston was similarly captivated by nature and sought to foster an appreciation of the unique qualities of the bush and its place in Australian art.

Deep water, Bobbin Head evidently held special meaning for Grace Cossington Smith. The artwork is a defining feature of her Interior with blue painting 1956, despite its relative size within the composition. Like the windows and doorways that the artist employed to great effect in later works, she used the painting to expand the space within her domestic scene and suggest a world beyond it.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA

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Shrine-like sanctuary houses five contemporary deities

 

Ceramicist Vipoo Srivilasa practises art with a spirit of generosity, optimism and inclusion. Community-minded and attuned to contemporary concerns, including climate change, social justice and the migrant experience, he addresses these issues through artworks that offer hope for our troubled times.

Srivilasa is known primarily for his idiosyncratic and meticulously crafted blue-and-white porcelain sculptures that celebrate his Buddhist faith, the folktales and iconography of his homeland and his life in Australia. He moved from Bangkok to Melbourne in 1997 to study ceramics at Monash University, and completed further study in Tasmania before settling in Melbourne.

Since 2008, Srivilasa has included audience participation in many of his artworks, explaining: ‘I’ve always been interested in creating opportunities for sharing and exploring complex ideas of cross-cultural experience’.1

Vipoo introduces ‘Shrine of Life / Benjapakee Shrine’

The blue-and-white palette Srivilasa has typically favoured references Lai Krarm, or Thai domestic tableware, and, more broadly, the ceramics that originated in Henan Province, China, in the ninth century, which were traded through the Middle East via the Silk Road and later imported to Europe. The crockery became a ubiquitous and coveted commodity in late-eighteenth-century England during a period of colonial expansionism, when potters such as Josiah Spode appropriated the original Chinese designs and adapted them to suit British tastes. The phenomenon has been interpreted as a form of cultural imperialism by postcolonial theorist Edward Said, whose text Orientalism (1978) dissected Western tendencies to exoticise the East. Srivilasa recognises this history while seeing the importation of blue-and-white ware as analogous to his own journey from East to West, and embracing the cross-cultural exchange it has entailed. ‘Nowadays,’ he says, ‘I find it hard to tell which culture is which in my work … The boundary is a blur.’2

Shrine of Life / Benjapakee Shrine

Vipoo Srivilasa, Thailand/Australia b.1969 / Shrine of Life / Benjapakee Shrine (and detail) 2021 / Mixed-media installation with five ceramic deities / Commissioned for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) / Purchased 2021 with funds from the Contemporary Patrons through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Vipoo Srivilasa

Srivilasa’s Shrine of Life / Benjapakee Shrine 2021 builds on the audience-oriented nature of his previous work and pays homage to his fluid identity. The shrine-like sanctuary houses five contemporary deities Srivilasa has made to represent qualities important to him: love equality, spirituality, security, identity and creativity. Infused with the scent of jasmine — familiar to worshippers at Thai temples where the blooms are offered as phuang malai (garlands) — the structure makes reference to the Lak Mueang shrine in the centre of Bangkok, which is distinguished by its white and gold architecture and is similarly protected by five Thai deities.3 Srivilasa recalls visiting Lak Mueang to pay his respects and ask for blessings before he left Thailand for Australia, and his artwork venerates this memory and acknowledges what the relocation has meant to him. ‘Love equality’, for example, comments on same-sex marriage that was legalised in Australia in 2017, allowing Srivilasa and his partner to wed, but has yet to be endorsed in Thailand. The king penguins included allude to celebrated gay penguin couple Skipper and Ping in Zoo Berlin, while the arms of the figures that are yet to meet signify an incomplete heart, and Thailand’s ongoing journey towards marriage equality.4

Bridging the sacred and the secular, Srivilasa’s shrine is both a personal expression of devotion and an invitation to visitors to request blessings and protection from one of the deities by making an offering of a paper flower to them. By providing a space in which to reflect and express gratitude, Vipoo Srivilasa shares something of his holistic approach to life and asks audiences to join him in honouring our differences and our commonalities.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA
This is an extract from the QAGOMA publication The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art available in-store and online from the QAGOMA Store.

Endnotes
1 Vipoo Srivilasa, quoted in Owen Leong, ‘Peril interview – Vipoo Srivilasa’, Peril: Asian-Australian Arts and Culture, 23 September 2011, <https://peril.com.au/back-editions/edition11/peril-interview-vipoosrivilasa/>, accessed 18 March 2021.
2 Vipoo Srivilasa, quoted in Alice Pung, ‘The colonisation of the cute – exploring the work of Vipoo Srivilasa’, Garland Magazine no. 6, 10 March 2017, accessed 13 April 2021.
3 The number five is significant in Buddhist culture: Benjapakee are the sets of five grand Buddhist amulets that are most revered — benja, meaning five; and pakee, meaning associates. The word refers to the five followers the Buddha gathered around him at the deer park at Isipatana where he delivered his first teachings, or Dharma.
4 In July 2020, the cabinet of Thailand approved a draft civil partnership bill that, if ratified by Parliament, will permit same-sex couples to register their union, adopt children, claim inheritance rights and jointly manage assets. See Vitit Muntarbhorn, ‘Thailand’s same-sex civil partnership law – a rainbow trailblazer?’, East Asia Forum, 2 September 2020, <https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/09/02/thailands-same-sex-civil-partnership-law-arainbow-trailblazer/>, accessed 27 April 2021.

Dance along with Dok Rak and Friends in ‘Garden of Love’

Meet APT10 Kids mascot Dok Rak and friends (Dok Rak means ‘Flower of Love’ in Thai). The characters were inspired by Vipoo Srivilasa’s ‘flower bear’ sculptures. Flower bears are imaginary creatures made out of many individual petals or flowers. This animation forms part of Vipoo Srivilasa’s APT10 Kids project, Garden of Love

In the Garden of Love children reflect on the people they miss the most by writing them a message or drawing their portrait on a flower template. Children can add their flower to the garden to help it grow!

Vipoo Srivilasa, Thailand/Australia b.1969 / Garden of Love 2021 / Site-specific built environment / Commissioned for APT10 Kids with support from the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation / Courtesy: Vipoo Srivilasa

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On display in ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). APT10 is at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane from 4 December 2021 to 26 April 2022.

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Full Face: Artists’ Helmets

 

Full Face: Artists’ Helmets’ was developed in response to ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ exhibition showcasing 100 motorcycles from the 1870s to the present celebrating 150 years of motorcycle history.

Accepting our invitation to individualise a Biltwell Gringo ECE ‘full face’ helmet, 15 contemporary Australian artists — Monika Behrens, Kate Beynon, David Booth (ghostpatrol), Eric Bridgeman and Alison Wel, eX de Medici, Shaun Gladwell, Madeleine Kelly, Callum McGrath, Archie Moore, Robert Moore, Nell, Reko Rennie, Brian Robinson, TextaQueen, and Guan Wei — have been inspired by the helmets’ sculptural form.

Shaun Gladwell / Vase 2020 / Courtesy: The art ist
‘Full face’ helmet by Monika Behren

Shaun Gladwell has a longstanding fascination with motorcycles, through both personal interest and an appreciation of the vehicle’s role in popular culture. His video work Approach to Mundi Mundi 2007 — which was filmed on the outskirts of the town featured in Mad Max (1979) — appears in ‘The Motorcycle’. Gladwell’s contribution to ‘Full Face’ is an inverted helmet filled with plastic flowers resembling the garlands that appear at roadside memorials, reminding us that motorcycling has its risks.

Monika Behrens similarly acknowledges the darker side of riding. She has painted 13 hallucinogenic flowers on her helmet, alluding to the number’s associations with underground biker communities and illicit drugs. The plants pose a subtle challenge to this culture, subverting, in her words, ‘the concept of the rough/tough biker by appearing soft and decorative’.

DELVE DEEPER: Browse the FULL LIST OF MOTORCYCLES from humble origins to cutting-edge prototypes

RELATED: READ MORE ABOUT THE BIKES ON DISPLAY

Guan Wei, Ritualistic helmet 2020 / Robert Moore, Kindness 2020 / Madeleine Kelly, Birds of passage 2020 / Monika Behrens, 13 2020 / Courtesy: The artists

Some artists have transposed imagery that they use in their practice to the form of the helmet, exploiting its convex shape. For example, Guan Wei, an artist known for his idiosyncratic approach, has juxtaposed motifs associated with China’s Cultural Revolution against images of rebellion from popular culture.

Torres Strait Islander artist Brian Robinson has likewise employed an array of personally significant symbols, including the Dhari, or headdress, that appears on the Torres Strait Islander flag, and the star constellation of Tagai that signifies the value of astronomy to his seafaring people.

The exhibition reflects a range of other approaches, some of them deeply personal. Archie Moore, whose late uncle Garry was ‘well-known for riding his bikes vast distances between towns west of Toowoomba’ and ‘would custom-make his own bikes from scrap pieces’, has created an homage. Moore’s helmet features a spectacular set of cow horns reminiscent of the ones his uncle once used to individualise his own helmets, worn by the artist as a child.

Guan Wei / Ritualistic helmet 2020 / Courtesy: The artist
Archie Moore / Uncle Garry (Helmet) 2020 / Courtesy: The artist
Eric Bridgeman and Alison Wel / Giblin (Head) 2020 / Courtesy: The artists
eX de Medici / Bucket for a blood supply 2020 / Courtesy: The artist

Eric Bridgeman has made his helmet with his cousin Alison Wel, continuing his collaboration with family and friends from his maternal tribe, the Yuri Alaiku, from Papua New Guinea’s Simbu Province. Drawing on their shared heritage, the artists have embellished their artwork with a bilum headpiece, woven by Wel, and clan designs that evoke the ‘growth of hair patterns on the human skull’.

Several artists have engaged with ethical issues. eX de Medici has painted a brain on her helmet, alluding to its function in theatres of war. Having served as an official war artist, she is well-versed in the role that the headgear serves. The helmet is sometimes referred to as a ‘brain bucket’ because it shields the brain and, in catastrophic circumstances, contains its remains.

Together, these varied and inventive responses provide a striking and thought-provoking counterpoint to the design focus of ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA

Robert Moore / Kindness 2020 / Courtesy: The artist

Read more about Motorcycles / Know Brisbane through the Collection / Dive into Australian Art / Subscribe to QAGOMA YouTube to go behind-the-scenes

Featured image: Monika Behrens 13 2020

Show off your ride with #MotorcycleGOMA #QAGOMA 4-2020

Finding joy in small things

 

Grace Cossington Smith’s artworks are a reminder that joy is all around us. In her hands, an array of objects, the fold of a tablecloth or light falling through stained glass inspire delight and open windows onto her world.

In this time of social distancing and self-isolation, it can be challenging to resist the feeling of being confined by our own ‘four walls’. As a panacea, we might look to the paintings of Cossington Smith who found pleasure in the things about her. While she spent much of her life in and around her family home ‘Cossington’ in Turramurra, she produced a body of work – including still lifes, interiors and paintings of her hometown, Sydney – that has distinguished her as one Australia’s most important modernists.

Interior

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Interior 1958 / Oil on composition board / 91.4 x 58.1cm / Gift of the Godfrey Rivers Trust through Miss Daphne Mayo 1958 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

MENTIONED: View ‘The sock knitter’

Cossington Smith’s precocious artistic talent was recognised and nurtured by her family, who she sketched prodigiously and who feature in some of her most iconic paintings. The sock knitter 1915 depicts her sister Madge engaged in a pursuit that occupied many women on the homefront during the First World War. Knitting socks for the troops was a way to contribute to the war effort, and a welcome distraction from daily concerns. More than a portrait of domesticity, the painting, with its striking diagonals and unusual combination of pattern and colour, has been described by curator Daniel Thomas as ‘the first fully Post-Impressionist work to be exhibited in Australia’.1

Cossington Smith made the painting while a student of the influential Italian-born artist Antonio Dattilo Rubbo who was alive to artistic developments in Europe, and encouraged his pupils to experiment. Under Rubbo’s influence, Cossington Smith embraced Paul Cezanne’s shifting tones and forms, and Vincent Van Gogh’s colour-drenched canvases. Their work was to make a lasting impression, as she recalled in an interview with Hazel de Berg in 1965:

‘My chief interest, I think, has always been colour, but not flat crude colour, it must be colour within colour, it has to shine.’2

Before the arches met

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Before the arches met c.1930 / Crayon and coloured pencils over pencil on cream wove paper / 37.8 x 43.4cm / Purchased 1976. Godfrey Rivers Trust / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

MENTIONED: View ‘Things on an iron tray on the floor’

Paintings such as Things on an iron tray on the floor c.1928 epitomise this mantra. The artwork was shown in Cossington Smith’s first solo exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries, Sydney, in 1928, and around the time that she began a series of artworks depicting the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. A feat of contemporary engineering and design, the Bridge became a potent symbol of modern Australia, as artists were quick to recognise. Cossington Smith captured its dynamism in drawings such as Before the arches met c.1930, using radiating bands of colour and the tantalising gap between the spans to generate visual tension.

Church interior

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Church interior c.1941-42 (inscr. 1937) / Oil with pencil on pulpboard / 55.2 x 42.2cm / Purchased 2001 with funds raised through The Grace Cossington Smith Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

A similar treatment of colour and form distinguishes Church interior c.1941–42 (inscr. 1937). The painting incorporates Cossington Smith’s major stylistic interests and is meaningful in terms of her personal history, portraying the Smith family’s place of worship, the new St James’ Anglican Church in Turramurra, built in 1941. The artist’s vibrant hues and varied brushstrokes convey her delight in the rhythms of the man-made structure, and the spiritual quality that she observed in the world around her. As she wrote:

All form – landscape, interiors, still life, flowers, animal, people – have (sic) an inarticulate grace and beauty; painting to me is expressing this form in colour, colour vibrant with light – but containing this other, silent quality which is unconscious, and belongs to all things created.3

Interior in Florence

Grace Cossington Smith, Australia 1892-1984 / Interior in Florence 1949 / Oil on board / 35 x 25.2cm (sight) / Gift in memory of Richard Harnett Cambridge and Merle Cambridge through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

Interiors were a favourite subject for Cossington Smith, filling the pages of her sketchbooks and becoming the subject of some of her best known works. Interior in Florence 1949, made after her second trip to Europe, is an example of the distinctive approach that she brought to the genre. While the painting’s muted colours reflect the soft light of the northern hemisphere, the composition itself is characteristic. Utilising the frame itself and placing an emphasis on the doorway, curtains and windows within the room, Cossington Smith expands the space within her painting and brings the scene outside in. A comparable effect can be seen in one of the artist’s later paintings, Interior 1958, in which the window pane on the far right suggests a world beyond the picture’s frame.

Whether painting an assortment of well-loved kitchen implements, the interior of her family home or, as she described it, ‘my dear old bridge’, Grace Cossington Smith’s ability to perceive and express joy in her immediate surroundings is a model worth emulating.4

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1 Daniel Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1973, p.69.
2 Grace, Cossington Smith, interview with Hazel de Berg, oral history tapes, National Library of Australia, 16 August 1965.
3 Grace,Cossington Smith, quoted in Mervyn Horton, Present Day Art in Australia‘, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1969, p.203.
4 Grace Cossington Smith, quoted in Deborah Hart, ‘The curve of the Bridge’, in Grace Cossington Smith: A retrospective exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, https://nga.gov.au/exhibition/cossingtonsmith/default.cfm?MnuID=4&Essay=2, accessed 15 May 2020.

Featured image detail: Grace Cossington Smith Interior 1958
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Thea Proctor’s woodcut reminds us of life’s simple pleasures

 

Thea Proctor’s vibrant hand-coloured woodcut Summer, inspired by the tradition of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, brings me joy because it reminds me of life’s simple pleasures (ikigai). 

In 1921, having spent much of the past two decades in London, Thea Proctor returned to Australia and settled in Sydney where she became an influential artist and a doyenne of style. Biographer Jan Minchin has noted that Proctor was ‘Frequently described as looking like one of her own pictures … [and] considered the most picturesque hostess in Sydney.’1 Even before Proctor’s arrival, the publisher Sydney Ure Smith had commissioned her to produce covers for his new magazine The Home. Her sophisticated designs and articles on art, fashion and interior decorating would make the publication essential reading.

RELATED: Portrait group (The mother) 1907 is one of a series of works that feature George Lambert’s friend and colleague Thea Proctor.

Margaret Preston ‘Black swans, Wallis Lake, NSW’

Margaret Preston, Australia 1875-1963 / Black swans, Wallis Lake, NSW 1923 / Woodcut on thin Japanese paper / 19.2 x 27.5cm (comp.) / Purchased 2003. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Preston/Copyright Agency

Proctor was a passionate advocate for modern art, a tireless campaigner for women artists, and a devotee of fellow Sydneysider and leading contemporary artist Margaret Preston. In the early 1920s, Preston had begun to make woodcuts inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, an art form that flourished in Edo period Japan (1600–1868) and featured ephemeral scenes from everyday life, or ‘pictures of the floating world’.2 Preston saw in these works the simplification of colour and form to which many modern artists aspired, and encouraged Proctor and others to explore the technique.

Summer 1930 is one of only 13 woodcuts Proctor is known to have made, and displays the bold lines and vibrant colours characteristic of her work in the medium.3 Her love of design is well illustrated here – elements like the Dalmatian, the patterned pillow and the scalloping on the dress of the girl in the hammock have been included for their dazzling effect.

Thea Proctor ‘Summer’

Thea Proctor, Australia 1879-1966 / Summer 1930 / Woodcut, hand-coloured on Oriental paper / 17.3 x 22.8cm (comp.) / Purchased 2002. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Thea Proctor

Although the print’s decorative qualities are one of its most appealing features, the work is more than simply an eye-catching arrangement. It provides an insight into the period in which Proctor lived, and the urbane circles in which she moved. Her dual interests in art and couture are conveyed through the figure of the girl browsing through the magazines of modern art and her chic companion, parasol in hand. It is through the considered placement of these accoutrements that Proctor is able to communicate, with great economy of style, those things she valued most.

As her relative Thea Waddell later recollected about another work by Proctor in the Gallery’s Collection, Still life and interior, ‘All her pre-occupations are there – the fans … which she loved, umbrellas or parasols used most elegantly to keep off the sun … books on art to be shared and read.’4

Thea Proctor ‘The swing’

Thea Proctor, Australia 1879-1966 / The swing 1925, printed 1926 / Woodcut, hand-coloured on laid Oriental paper / 25.1 x 24.9cm (block) / Purchased 1980 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Art Gallery of New South Wales

Summer relates to two other woodcuts by Proctor held by the Gallery, including The swing 1925 and Women with fans 1930. In each instance, the artist has constructed a tableau in which her characters act out their roles as members of the leisured classes, and form picturesque elements in a carefully orchestrated composition.

Thea Proctor ‘Women with fans’

Thea Proctor, Australia 1879-1966 / Women with fans 1930 / Woodcut on Oriental paper / 22 x 22.2cm (comp.) / Purchased 2002. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Thea Proctor

In Women with fans, the posed stillness of the figures is juxtaposed against the busy harbour behind them, creating a visual tension that is typical of Proctor’s prints. The interior depicted is likely to be her home in Double Bay, while the models are her friends and fellow printmakers, Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme.5 Their stylish attire and hairstyles reflect the fashions of the day, and are indicative of Proctor’s interest in costume. The striking floral dress worn by Spowers references the outfits designed for the dancers of the Ballet Russes, who Proctor had seen perform in 1911, and of which she said ‘it would be difficult to imagine anything more beautiful and inspiring’.6

Each of these scenes appear as moments frozen in time, yet they retain a strong sense of dynamism. In Summer Proctor has achieved this effect by contrasting the languid poses of the young women with the bright hues and rhythmic lines that surround them. The raised leg of the girl reading serves as a striking counterpoint to those of her companion, which dangle from the hammock in which she lies, their opposing figures forming a whorl of colour that arrests the eye.

Samantha Littley is Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1 Roger Butler and Jan Minchin, Thea Proctor: The prints, Resolution Press, Sydney, 1980, p.6.
2 Preston based her woodcut Black swans, Wallis Lake, NSW 1923 on an illustration of a carved wood panel of wild geese by Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637), which she had seen in Marcus B. Huish’s Japan and its art (first published in 1889).

3 Chris Deutsher and Roger Butler, A Survey of Australian Relief Prints 1900/1950, Deutsher Galleries, Armadale, 1978, p.28. Despite producing only a small number of woodcuts herself, Proctor introduced many others to the medium, including Ruth Ainsworth, Gladys Gibbons, Ysobel Irvine, Amie Kingston and Ailsa Lee Brown. See Joan Kerr, (ed.), Heritage: The national women’s art book, Craftsman House, Roseville East, 1995, p.433.
4 Thea Waddell in correspondence with Bettina MacAulay, 14 February 1982, QAGOMA Research Library Collection Artist File [unpublished].
5 Helen Topliss, Modernism and Feminism: Australian women artists 1900–1940, Craftsman House, Roseville East, 1996, p.159.
6 Thea Proctor, quoted in Kerr, (ed.), Heritage, p.433.

Featured image detail: Thea Proctor Summer 1930
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