'Making Modernism'

Art | February 13 2017

Friday morning at Heide Museum of Modern Art, the gallery was simultaneously buzzing with energy and filled with a sense of quiet awe.

The Making Modernism exhibition featuring the work of Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Georgia O’Keeffe brings the work of three iconic painters together.

The crowd was captivated. Friends spent time in front of a favourite painting, discussing the scene, the strokes, the colours. People patiently waited for crowds to clear so they could in turn have their own time in front of paintings. This crowd studied the works. They lingered, they discussed and filled the gallery space with thoughtful chatter.

At one end of the long room were Preston’s gloriously coloured still life paintings of tea sets, flowers in vases and her famous self-portrait. An Australian artist, Preston (1875 – 1963) had by the 1920’s established herself as one of Australia’s most influential modernist artists. Also known as a printmaker, Preston valued craft and painting equally.

The exhibition devoted to these women artists at Heide gives recognition and visibility to artists who have had a significant impact on modernist painting. Exhibitions such as these are important, especially when statistics from The CouNTess Report 2014 show that, while 74% of visual art graduates are women only 40% of the work shown in commercial galleries and museums is by women artists.

Looking closely at Cossington Smith’s (1892 – 1984) paintings, the brushstrokes are defined, the colours starkly sit side by side in shades of orange, blue, purple and green. She painted scenes of everyday life from her unique perspective. With the recent resurgence in craft, there’s something familiar about the iconic portrait of her younger sister Madge knitting socks.


Madge could be a woman attending her local crafternoon, working on a yarn bombing project or creating a knitted sculpture. The works don’t seem so far removed from our lives today.

Standing in front of a photo of Grace Cossington Smith in her garden, I imagine her strong desire to create works which document her everyday life. The personal becomes not only a source of documentation for her life, but also a representation of the lives of women during the early 1900’s.

The gallery space where Georgia O’Keeffe’s (1887 – 1886) work is on display has people milling about, waiting for their turn to fit into the packed room where a documentary of O’Keeffe is showing. The room is dark and from the doorway, I catch a glimpse of O’Keeffe on the screen sitting in front of a fire discussing her work.

An American modernist painter, O’Keeffe was the first woman to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern art in New York in the 1940’s. O’Keeffe worked as a graphic designer and this is reflected in her crisp lines and precise attention to detail in her paintings. Whilst flowers were a consistent theme in her work, O’Keeffe resisted the Freudian analysis that her flowers were symbolic of the vagina. Influenced by the writing of prominent feminist, Gertrude Stein, O’Keeffe fought against inequality for women artists during her career.

Whilst the exhibition may not have intended to make a statement about representation and visibility for the work of women artists, the work of O’Keefe, Preston and Cossington Smith in one exhibition is a treat. It’s reassuring to see that exhibitions such as Making Modernism showcase the work of influential painters such as O’Keefe, Preston and Cossington Smith, showing the significant impact of women artists on the contemporary art world.

O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism is at Heide Museum of Modern Art until 19 February 2017.

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