Modernism in Australia and Oceania By Macarthur, David

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO11-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 23 May 2024, from


(Previously published as 'The Experience of Aboriginality in the Creation of the Radically New' in Ross, S. (ed.) (2014) Modernist World, Abingdon: Routledge.)

Why is primitivism so alluring?

Barbara Creed (2008: 64)

In this chapter I consider the intellectual and imaginative currents driving modernism in Australia. Australians were once taught that their articulations of modernism were pale, isolated, and belated reflections of European modernism, a provincial cliché that has since been countered by the equally clichéd patriotic affirmation that there were ‘myriad connections between Australian artists and global modernist art’ (White 2011: 109). There is no doubt some truth in both positions depending on which aspect of the art-scene one considers, but in so far as the conditions for modern art are not defined in terms of national identities the whole idea of a distinctively Australian modernism is called into question.

If one is looking for something distinctively Australian to say about modernism, one response to acknowledging the more or less global historical conditions relevant to the creation of modernist art – late Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of megalopolises, etc. – is to look to the embattled reception of modernism in Australia amongst artists, critics, and curators. Terry Smith speaks of ‘[modernism’s] relatively passive reception’ in the Australian milieu (2008: 394) and Michael Ackland remarks, ‘modernist literary trends had been slow to make a major impact locally’ (2000: 74). Indeed, the struggle over the acknowledgement and acceptance of modernist art became a matter of public concern in Australia: the outcry over the award of the 1943 Archibald Prize to William Dobell; the exhibition of modern art in department stores (e.g. David Jones, Myer Emporium) rather than traditionalist art museums; and Norman and Lionel Lindsay’s public campaign against modernism (cf. Hunt 2003). But, again, these are local instances of a global phenomenon. It is internal to modernism to problematize its relation to its audience so here, too, there will be little to say that is regionally specific.

nstead, I take another route to the idea of an Australian modernism, where the issue concerns less national identity, and more how modernism is inspired by so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. I use the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘primitivism’ in a resolutely non-pejorative sense akin to that employed by the MOMA exhibition ‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’: ‘The term “primitivism” is used to describe the Western response to tribal culture as revealed in the work and thought of modern artists’ (MOMA 1984). Given that the exhibition paired works of modernist artists with various tribal artefacts (e.g. a Paul Klee painting and a Zuni war god effigy), this statement is perhaps most naturally taken to mean that a subclass of modernist artists adopted ‘primitivist’ strategies, where ‘primitivism’ designates a distinctive artistic style or form or content ‘imitating’ (in various senses) primitive cultural artefacts. But I take seriously another possible interpretation of this passage: the more radical hypothesis that modernist art as a whole is a Western response to tribal culture. Australasian modernism is to a large but indeterminate extent a Western response to Aboriginal culture. The justification for applying the term ‘primitivism’ here is not primarily a matter of artistic style, form, or content but, more fundamentally, of artistic motivation or inspiration. This is the heterodox sense of the term that I employ throughout.

This claim is not as outrageous as it might initially seem. Indeed some have connected the source and vitality of art-making in general with the primitive. For instance, the modernist sculptor Henry Moore has written, ‘All art has its roots in the “primitive” or else it becomes decadent’ (1964: 146). Without defending this global thesis, we can at least enlist Moore as an ally of the vision of modernism defended here: an attempt to restore vitality and unprecedented forms of significance and intelligibility to art in the modern era by engaging with the primitive. This claim’s plausibility about the origins of modern art depends on two important caveats: (1) that the Western response to tribal culture may be largely imaginative in so far as one can have a powerful engagement with a tribal culture without (genuinely or fully) understanding that culture or its artefactual output; and, particularly in the Australian context, (2) the response to tribal culture can be a response, imaginatively mediated, to the land that the indigenous population once or now inhabits and was dispossessed of by colonial settlers. Let us consider these points in turn.

At issue is the modernist late-romantic search for revolutionary newness in art and the role the experience of ‘the primitive’ – perhaps a largely imaginative experience – plays in creating the conditions for its realization. To see primitivism in this sense as a (the?) primary source of Australian modernism, and a possible answer to the modernist problem of the radically new in art, provides an alternative to the Eurocentrism of the vast majority of discussions of Australian modernism. The Australian example may even lead to a re-conception of the relation of modernist art generally to ‘primitivism’, which is often treated as merely one influence among others. Perhaps an engagement with the ‘primitive’ really is the primary source of the radically new in art, as Moore suggests.

Of course, we do know that some very influential European modernists found in native African and Islander artifacts new sources of creativity. To give one notable and conspicuous example, consider the dependence of Picasso’s early masterpiece Les Demoiselles D’Avignon on African masks that he observed in Andre Derain’s studio in Paris. Another striking example is the series of late paintings of Paul Gauguin who, justifying his escape from Europe to Tahiti, writes: ‘Artists, having lost all their savagery, having no more instincts, one could even say imagination, went astray on every path, looking for productive elements which they did not have the strength to create’ (1968: 86). Recovering one’s savagery is Gauguin’s metaphor for creating art anew through exposure to the primitive. In this case it included introducing colours, optical effects, and energetic forms of non-European art into his work. But these matters of detail are inessential to the main point – for each artist has to find what counts as the ‘productive elements’ of his or her art. There is no single relation (appropriation? inspiration? disorientation?) in which the white (scientific, technological) and black (‘primitive’) cultures stand to each other.

The conditions for art-making that Gauguin achieved by leaving Europe for Tahiti were available to Australian modernists in their own backyards, but the effect in both cases was the same. They were confronted with an acute experience of otherness, which provided them with the ‘productive elements’ they needed to render new artistic expressions appropriate to the modern age. The issue need not be seen as one of creating ‘a vital hybrid in which white and black cultures have formed something entirely new’ even if such a hybrid is the inevitable outcome of the interaction of these cultures (Lemke 1998: 144). Modernism is largely a matter of the imaginings of ‘white culture’ confronted with a ‘black culture’ it did not understand.

Even if we suppose that Australian modernism is understandable as a global reaction of Western culture to the primitive (admittedly, a controversial claim), that does not diminish the importance of the fact that the conditions for Australian modernism were present in their most potent form not in Europe but in Australia itself. Primitivism provided the possibility of a radical reimagining of artistic possibilities precisely in allowing an escape from Europe and the dominant tradition of European art – including, say, Classical, Christian, Renaissance, and Romantic periods. Perhaps a confrontation with Australian otherness made available a rejection of the entire tradition of Western art and its obsession with the search for more and more perfect simulacra of nature. To imagine another past of tribal culture – say, a new relation to nature – thus became a necessity.

Standard art historical writing on Australian modernism tends to trace the lines of influence between European and Australian modernism, only differing in the complexity and directionality of the lines. Painting is typically treated as the paradigmatic art form, so great significance is placed on local innovations such as Norah Simpson’s introduction of Parisian approaches to colour and formal abstraction on her return to Sydney in 1913, and the bearing this had on fellow painters such as Roland Wakelin, Grace Cossington Smith, and Roy de Maistre. Moreover, the move to abstraction in painting appears as a general tendency towards an emphasis on ‘form’ in art. Without slighting the factual basis of this Eurocentric historiography of modernism, I focus instead on examples of Australian artists and artworks that represent a new beginning through some – perhaps indirect, partial, or unacknowledged – appreciation of the newness (or unanticipated difference) of the Australian Aborigines and the landscape they inhabited from a white perspective.

Viewed in terms of the conditions for creating a new beginning, the problems confronting modernist artists in Europe and Australasia were almost exactly opposite. In Europe the problem was to create new beginnings in a world burdened with the past: a world of ancient cities, royal families, aristocrats, old religious divisions, timeworn institutions, a long history of wars and racial and class conflict, etc. In Australia, however, none of this applied. In a sense settlers had no past. Everything was so new – the landscape, its ‘emptiness’, its Indigenous people, and the openness of the future – that people couldn’t see what was right in front of them. Notoriously, early colonial painters could not paint the plants or animals without making them look European. Nor could they do justice to the vast scale of the landscape, or properly acknowledge its Aboriginal inhabitants and their manner of inhabiting and shaping the land. The sublime difficulty of appreciating the newness of Australia – its great difference from anything white people had ever experienced or imagined before – is an important inspiration for Australian modernism at its best.

Modernist landscape painters like Grace Cossington Smith, Elioth Gruner, Dorrit Black, Hans Heysen, Margaret Preston, Eric Thale, Rah Fizelle, Roy de Maistre, and Roland Wakelin, found inspiration in the natural and man-made Australian environment. Whether they realized it or not, they responded to a landscape imaginatively experienced as Aboriginal, as if imbued with an ancient and alien spirit or intelligence beyond their comprehension – an experience D. H. Lawrence powerfully expresses in Kangaroo. So, too, the Jindyworobak literary movement promoted an Indigenous literature based on a response to the land modelled, in this case openly, on that of the Aborigines. Peter Conrad expresses the relevant conception of spirit of place well when he says that Australia’s Aboriginal inhabitants ‘had no conception of a house and treated the earth itself and the stories it told as their unwalled, roofless home’ (2003: 11). City-dwellers on the densely populated urban fringe of the country are subject to a sense of guilty possession, expressed in how recurring themes of the bush and the desert haunt our collective imagination, including that of some of our finest artists: Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, Joseph Furphy, Sidney Nolan, and Fred Williams.

The primitivism of many modernist artists is not a matter of self-conscious artistic influence, but rather of how the confrontation of a white colonial population with a non-European ‘other’ – by way of an engagement with the land, lore, and artifacts of the Australian Aborigines – created the conditions for the artistic discovery of the radically new. This is not to say that this opportunity was always taken, or that there was not a good deal of modernist art in Australia inspired by, or derived from, European models, including the surrealist-inspired paintings of Albert Tucker, the Bauhaus-inspired architecture of Harry Seidler, and the Russian Constructivist-inspired photography of Max Dupain and Wolfgang Sievers. But these models themselves are, arguably, also examples of primitivism.

Since it is impossible to make this argument satisfactorily in a short chapter, I have chosen three well-known and enigmatic examples of Australian modernism. Examples can never establish a general claim beyond all doubt but the theme of primitivism runs through them all. These examples represent a larger trend but they do not sum up Australian modernism as a whole. Apart from the question of other trends and influences, there will always be artistic geniuses that are unique and not easily categorizable in general terms (e.g. Colin McCahon, Peter Grainger). But they do provide a plausible case for a new vision of the conditions for the new in Australian modernism.

The Ern Malley Poems

In 1943 Max Harris received a parcel of poems from one Ethel Malley, who claimed they were penned by her brother, Ern, who had died tragically at the age of 25. The poems were, in fact, a literary hoax, concocted in a day by James McAuley and Harold Stewart to parody the experimental poetics of modernism: a radical surrealist technique involving chance association, random sampling of miscellaneous texts (e.g. Shakespeare’s Pericles), a dictionary of quotations, and an army report on the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. The following year the poems appeared in the Angry Penguins magazine series under the editorship of Max Harris, who regarded them as the work of an unsung Australian genius. Here a fictitious young white man with an Aboriginal name (‘Mallee’) is associated imaginatively with experimental modernist poetry at its most unfettered.

The name ‘Malley’ is carefully chosen. It is an Aboriginal word for a straggly chaotic bush – a poor cousin of the Eucalypt family – that grows abundantly in semi-arid regions. One can point to the theme of disorderliness, but there is also the theme of creation: out of chaos comes a new order; out of the desert arises a new being or beginning. Is it just a coincidence that a word with these connotations chosen by the two prankster poets comes from the Aboriginal lexicon? Perhaps we can look to another poet for the answer, though Xavier Herbert’s novel Capricornia (1938) or Patrick White’s novel Voss (1957) would serve as well. From the poem ‘Australia’ (1943) by A.D. Hope (1961: 100) one reads,

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home

From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find

The Arabian desert of the human mind,

Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare

Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes

The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes

Which is called civilization over there.

Margaret Preston’s Late Paintings

After an apprenticeship in Europe in the 1910s, Margaret Preston experimented with colour and pattern in an attempt to achieve an aesthetic balance between representation and abstraction. What is of interest in the present context is her paintings of the 1940s which adopt the colour palette, styles, and designs of Aboriginal painting: a palette of black, white, ochre, bush green, etc.; bold outlines around objects such as trees; and the use of repetitive dot or line elements. It has been said that her most significant revelation is that ‘Aboriginal art was a form of spiritual connection to and knowledge of the country, expressing both concept and place’ (Edwards 2013: 222). A related but deeper thought that comes closer to capturing Preston’s sense of place – which we might speak of in terms of the expressive power in everyday things – is that the land itself can be understood, by those sensitive enough to see it, as expressing a sense of Aboriginality, the imaginative interpenetration of the land and Aboriginal culture; hence a new vision of our culture. Some might see this as a move towards a nationalist modernism but it need not be understood as a contrasting vision to those who see modernism as an international project ‘quite independent of the question of nationality’ (Edwards 2013: 17). Instead it could be understood as seeing the deep connection between primitivism and the modernist obsession with discovering the radically new.

We might wonder why it is a female painter that most openly acknowledges the Aboriginal source of her creativity. Stanley Cavell (1996) has argued that modern skepticism is inflected along gender lines. The male mind tends towards a world-denying abstraction, the female towards a world-embracing concreteness. Accordingly, one might contrast Preston’s late landscapes with Roy De Maistre’s early abstract colour works. And one might further wonder whether the modernist obsession with de-contextualized form expresses, as one theorist puts it, ‘a crisis in phallocentric culture’ (Foster 1985: 46).

The Opera House

The Opera House is our most iconic work of modernist architecture. Originally designed by a Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, everything about its history tells us a great deal about the power of art to inspire both retrograde and progressive social and political forces, as well as the difficult reception of modern art in Australia. Utzon won an international design competition to build the Opera House after the head of the judging team, Eero Saarinen, arrived on the judging panel late. The other judges had winnowed the entries down to a final few but Saarinen found the designs of these finalists unsatisfactory. It was he who pulled the winning entry out of a rubbish bin, and had the force of presence to bend the panel’s collective mind in its favour. The design impressed many people with its blending of the precision and poetry of its spherical forms with the apparent symbolic referencing of sailing boats on the harbour.

For our purposes what is most significant about the design is that it was inspired by ancient Mayan temple construction, which rose in stepped pyramids above a forest canopy (cf. Frampton 2003). Here the stepped temple is replaced by an opera theatre and the forest canopy by the waters of the harbour. But the idea is essentially the same. Surely the appropriateness of this use of ancient architecture was inspired by Utzon’s experience of the Australian landscape and, specifically, this particular place of ancient Aboriginal inhabitation. Of this site an architectural historian writes, ‘Bennelong Point was a most important Aboriginal site, upon which a number of very large shell monuments once stood’ (Myers 2000: 80). Utzon would have known something about Bennelong Point’s Aboriginal history. More intriguing is whether he knew that this was a site of Aboriginal constructions – monumental shell middens – which the early settlers burnt for lime in kilns at the harbour’s edge.

Australian modernism is an extended meditation on questions and paradoxes of sameness and difference: the search for a new beginning (difference) for art capable of expressing revolutionary perceptions of modernity but one still recognizable as art (sameness). From the first contact of white settlers in Australia the opposition between native (tribal culture) and settler (transposed British culture) was being transformed and overcome. The modernist idea of the primitive is a myth; but it is a myth thatplayed a powerful role in stimulating artists to discover the savage in themselves (as Gauguin put it), and thus to create the conditions for modernist art. No doubt this helps to explain why some of the best modernist art Australia has produced is set in a mythical bush or desert landscape, such as Nolan’s unforgettable Kelly series of paintings. And it leads one to wonder whether the Australian jeremiad against a sense of isolation is also a myth. Perhaps Australian modernists wanted to be isolated, to cast themselves as victims of isolation, victims of history, in order to provide the freedom from Europe to be something other to themselves, something truly modern.


1 I would like to thank Jane Goodall and Stephen Ross for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

2 The title of the chapter refers to ‘Australasia’ for a reason: central aspects of what I say about Australian modernism apply to New Zealand modernism too, given the confrontation of white settlers with the indigenous Maori population. However, given limitations of space I will focus exclusively on the Australian context.

3 For example, the rejection of Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’ from the exhibition of the Society for Independent Artists (1917), and the outcry over Le Corbusier’s urban plans for Paris, e.g. the Plan Voisin (1925).

4 Arthur Danto (2003) has criticized the MOMA exhibition – whose pairings of primitive artifacts with modern artworks were based on certain visual similarities – as naïve and uncomprehending. His point is that these aesthetic similarities provide no access at all to the meaning of either modernist or tribal artifacts, not even whether the latter could be properly considered works of art. But such criticisms, however effective against the rationale of the MOMA exhibition, have no bearing on my own appeal to primitive culture here since I do not claim that the Western response to such cultures is anything more than a matter of imaginative inspiration.

5 See Gates (1997) for an argument for the dependence of European modernism on African art.

6 Sometimes the influence is conspicuous (e.g. Margaret Preston, Peter Sculthorpe), and an artist may have a genuine understanding of the significance of the communal life of Aboriginal artifacts (e.g. rock and bark paintings, totems, wood carvings, tattooing and body painting).

7 To cut off all connection with the past one would not create something new but, rather, something unintelligible.

8 The emphasis on form to the exclusion of external reference in art has been taken as the heart of modernism. For this reason the prominent Australian art critic Bernard Smith (2007) prefers to call it ‘the Formalesque’.

9 The legal doctrine of terra nullius is understandable as a case of what Sigmund Freud calls repression. It denies what settlers all know or feel, that the land was Aboriginal land and that our presence here meant displacing its original inhabitants. This sense of moral and political unease motivating a failure of acknowledgement is well registered in E. Phillips Fox’s ‘The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770’ (1902), which depicts Cook claiming the land for the British Empire whilst an officer tries to draw his attention to the Aborigines on the hill above.

10 Presumed to be Roland Wakelin.

11 Foster is referring to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, but the point is generalizable.

12 Could it be mere chance that the smaller theatres of the Opera House echo these structures that are reputed to have been as much as 12 metres high?

Further Reading

  • Ackland, M. (2000) ‘Poetry from 1890s to 1970’, in E. Webby (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 74–104.

  • Cavell, S. (1996) Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

  • Conrad, P. (2003) At Home in Australia, London: Thames and Hudson.

  • Creed, B. (2008) ‘Jedda, negritude, and the modernist impulse in Australian film’, in R. Dixon & V. Kelly (eds) The Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s–1960s, Sydney: Sydney University Press. 62–72.

  • Danto, A. (1987) “‘Primitivism’ in 20th century art”, The State of the Art, New York: Prentice-Hall, 23–27.

  • Edwards, D. (2013) ‘Landscapes of modernity: 1920s–1940s’, Sydney Moderns: Art for a New World, Sydney: Art Gallery of NSW. 217–35.

  • Foster, H. (1985) ‘The “primitive” unconscious of modern art’, October, 34 (Fall): 45–70.

  • Frampton, K. (2003) ‘The architecture of Jørn Utzon’, The Pritzker Architecture Prize. Available online at www.pritzkerprize.com/2003/essay.

  • Gates, H.L. Jr. (1997) Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Gauguin, P. (1968) ‘On primitivism’, in Herschel B. Chipp (ed.) Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press. 78–86.

  • Hope, A.D. (1961) ‘Australia’, Poems, Sydney: Viking Press. 100.

  • Hunt, J.E. (2003) ‘“Victors” and “victims”: men, women, modernism and art in Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, 27.80: 65–75.

  • Lemke, S. (1998) Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • MOMA (1984) ‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’, Press Release, August. Available online at: www.moma.org/momaorg/shared//pdfs/docs/press_archives/6081/releases/MOMA_1984_0017_17.pdf2010.

  • Moore, H. (1964) ‘Primitive art’, in Robert L. Herbert (ed.) Modern Artists on Art, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 146–9.

  • Myers, P. (2000) ‘The third city’, Architecture Australia, 89.1: 80.

  • Smith, B. (2007) The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History, Melbourne: Macmillan.

  • Smith, T. (2008) Review of Modernism & Australia: Documents on Art, Design and Architecture, by A. Stephen A. McNamara P. Goad (eds). Modernism/modernity, 15.2 (April): 393–96.

  • White, A. (2011) ‘Australian modernism: 1915–55’, in Jaynie Anderson (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Australian Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 109–21.

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Macarthur, David. Modernism in Australia and Oceania. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/modernism-in-australia-and-oceania.

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