Making Modernism and me

Art has the power to transform, to illuminate, to educate, inspire and motivate. Harvey Fierstein

I have to confess, the majority of my favourite artists are men. Is it because there are fewer female artists or is it, as is the case with sport, that female artist have not enjoyed the same exposure as male artists or is it simply a gross carelessness on my part not to delve deeper and wider? Perhaps a combination of all three. The work of performance artist Marina Abramović, painter Margaret Ollie, sculptor Louise Joséphine Bourgeois move me. I am surrounded by female artists, many colleagues and friends are fine artists, sculptors, glass blowers, performers and I own art work by female artists. Yet, male artists seem to gain much space on gallery walls, in print and media. So I was excited, though unsure of what I would see, when I went along to the most recent exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery. Making Modernism is a combined exhibit of works by three female artists – Margaret Preston, Georgia O’Keeffe and Grace Cossington Smith.

Preston and Cossington Smith are Australian and O’Keeffe, American. The gallery space was intimate yet displayed a generous number of works by each artist making for a unique and pleasing experience.

I felt an immediate affinity with Preston and a familiarity with her work that I realised came from having explored the same places, tended the same flowers and photographed the same bush flora she depicts in her art. I was propelled back to a childhood home that had tongue in groove walls when admiring a still life, I knew the texture of the wild flowers and banksias, and I was surprised to see a painting titled White and Red Hibiscus dated 1925. I recently discovered a white hibiscus plant, a colour so rare, even my grandmother, an avid gardener had never seen.

I felt a comfort in viewing her work.  It is immediately very Australian, not only in the subject matter but the restricted colour palette which closely resembles the colours chosen by indigenous Australian artists. Her woodcuts are absorbing, her still lifes strong and potent.

Moving into the space reserved for Cossington Smith’s work I was taken from a tryst in nature to a celebration of the urban environment. Her work is post impressionistic. Her use of colour is energetic and elicits emotion. On seeing The Curve of the Bridge and The Bridge in Building I recalled Ashley Hay’s The Body in the Clouds, a novel that explores three intertwined stories from different times on the site where the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built.

Standing back and surveying the works there are a strong reflections of Van Gogh and Cezanne in a distinctly Australian setting. The effect was transformative and surreal.

The landscapes of New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona fascinate me. I wish to explore and roam those places. A short time with Georgia O’Keeffe’s work strengthened that desire. I felt a strong connection with her,  not through a familiarity of setting as it was with Preston but sensing a shared love of and affinity with nature. O’Keeffe, like me, was pulled by nature. Her landscapes are expansive, luminous and evocative of place. Her flowers bring us in intimate closeness with nature. Having a habit of narrowing in with the camera I enjoyed Canna Leaves and Corn No 2 for the detail. I responded quite emotionally to many of her works. The flowers were pleasing, Pelvis a stark, compelling portal and Black Place, Grey and Pink caused a fleeting, wrenching despair, I felt drawn into the void.

Three distinctive styles, three incredible women, three strong artists.  This was an enriching exhibition, well worth a visit.