Monday 24 November 2008

Smells like modernism

It was lovely to be greeted at the entrance to the Powerhouse Museum's Modern Times exhibition by non-other than that international artist we love to clasp to our parochial bosoms, Len Lye.*

Looking at the show from a New Zealand perspective, it was interesting to note the similarities and differences.

The wave of European refugees in the late 1930s and early 1940s had a similar effect in Australia to that in New Zealand - particularly in terms of architecture, and I'd like to see a Antipodean modernist architecture show. One of the differences that quickly became apparent was that while NZ was still firmly fixated on Britain, and London was the place to go for aspiring artists right into the 1960s, Australian artists turned their eyes towards America much earlier.

One favourite part of the show was seeing Margaret Preston's Implement blue displayed with swatches of paint samples and colour wheels - according to the exhibition info, the work was named after a paint colour, although that's not what the AGNSW says.**

Another was seeing the maquette for and correspondence over Alexander Calder's Crossed Blades (1967) commissioned to sit outside Harry Seidler's Australia Square building. The correspondence had been arranged into a collage by Penelope Seidler, and while that's probably not a conservator's dream, it suited the very personable tone of the letters, and in particular Sandy's wee sketch of the sculpture with jokey two human faces on the uprights.

Now, some gripes. For a design exhibition in a design museum, the lighting was often crappy (a dark-toned Grace Cossington-Smith practically disappeared behind its glass barrier) and the signage crooked or confusingly placed. Several interactives were inactive (including the colour-theory spinning tops, which I really wanted to try).

And a suggestion. This review of Sanchez and Turin's afore-mentioned book Perfume: The Guide ponders how a perfume like Guerlain's Après l’Ondée could be fitted into "an exhibition of Edwardian art and design where it so obviously belongs, the olfactory equivalent of what Yeats called “the faint mixed tints of Conder”, alongside many other nearly contemporaneous manifestations of the beautiful pre-war cult of paleness?".

Likewise for Modern Times. The exhibition had interior design, art, architecture, advertising, ceramics, film, textiles - you name it. How about a few bottles of Chanel No. 5, Je Reviens, Joy, or Shalimar?

*The fit between the curve of the jaw and the deco-y plinth is hilarious, but also rather beautiful.

**Hmmm. "Implement blue' represents the extremity of Margaret Preston's pictorial pursuit during the late 1920s, and has rightly become regarded as one of the iconic images of early modernist Australian painting. But its very simplicity of design, which Preston could not sustain for more than a couple of years, belies a problem resolved through brief resistance to her natural predilection. For in spite of the domesticity of its motif, Implement blue signified a conquest over the real potency of her female sensibility." Barry Pearce, 2005.


Rayner Hoff,
Decorative portrait (Len Lye), 1925. Marble, 30.5 x 22.5 x 16.5cm. Purchased 1938. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Image from the AGNSW website

Margaret Preston, Implement blue,1927. Oil on canvas on hardboard. Gift of the artist 1960. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Image from the AGNSW website.

Alexander Calder, Crossed Blades, 1967. Steel. Australia Square, Sydney. Image from the Art Business website.

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