Australia: modern art conflict in 1930s

This video is called The Power of Art – Picasso (complete episode).

By John Christian and Richard Phillips:

Pioneering modernist exhibition: a cultural turning point for 1930s Australia

Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, by Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller, Miegunyah Press

28 March 2006

Degenerates and Perverts, a richly illustrated 306-page book by Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller, examines the 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art and its impact on Australian artistic and social life.

Accurate information about the impact of this landmark event in local cultural history is long overdue.

The remarkable exhibition of fifty-nine painters and nine sculptors, many of them major figures of late nineteenth century and twentieth century art, was initiated by Australian newspaper magnate Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert) and financed by his Melbourne-based Herald newspaper.

As well as leading British painters Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Walter Sickert and Edward Wadsworth, it also included the work of post-impressionists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne (see also here); early moderns Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Marc Chagall; and other contemporary pioneers such as Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, to name a few.

All told, 217 paintings and a smaller number of sculptures were on display.

While art patrons in New York, Chicago, Paris, London and Berlin and other major American and European centres had ready access to the work of these celebrated artists, an exhibition of this artistic range and size had never been held in Australia before.

Not unexpectedly it generated passionate debate.

Artists, writers, students and thousands of ordinary people flocked to showings, breaking attendance records.

Over 70,000 people saw the exhibition in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, an astonishing figure considering Australia’s total population in 1939 was only 7 million.

By contrast, the exhibition provoked an angry backlash from leading representatives of the local art establishment who vehemently denounced the show and worked to undermine it.

In fact, the book’s title is a direct quote from J.S. MacDonald, then director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), who declared that most of the exhibition was “putrid meat” and the “product of degenerates and perverts”.

Murdoch, an NGV trustee and avid collector, was clearly at odds with these sentiments.

And while his taste was pedestrian—Degenerates and Perverts notes that he generally preferred “understandable art”—he hoped the show would encourage local artists.

Dadaism: here.

Australia: new finds in ancient Aboriginal rock art: here.

Australian novelist Kylie Tennant: here.

Impressionists vs. Bouguereau conflict in French art about 1880: here.

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8 thoughts on “Australia: modern art conflict in 1930s

  1. RE: Australia: modern art conflict in 1930s
    Posted by: Jon N (View Website)
    Date: 03/27/06 at 10:16 AM (2w3d ago)

    I can testify to the life changing power of an art exhibit. As a boy in the sixties I was taken to the New York Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition, “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage.” It included dozens of major post surrealist contemporary artists along with an unbelievably complete collection of Dada and Surrealist masterpieces. I don’t think that my teachers had any idea what they were dragging us into, and most of my fellow students didn’t understand what they were seeing, but my little world was shattered and rebuilt in an afternoon. I can point to a few other times when art changed my life as profoundly as anything I have ever experienced, hearing the Beatles for the first time, reading S. Foster Damon’s commentary on William Blake, attending my first punk show…I could go on.

    RE: Australia: modern art conflict in 1930s
    Posted by:

    Date: 03/27/06 at 10:24 AM (2w3d ago)
    Hi Jon, thanks for this contribution. With “Dada” as search word in my blog you may also find more here. I wrote my first article ever for my secondary (US: “High”) school students’ paper on a modern art show.


  2. Rome explores myth in Gauguin’s art
    Show gathers 150 paintings from world’s top museums

    (ANSA) – Rome, October 17 – Rome’s first solo show on Paul Gauguin looks at the resonance of the Eternal city’s myths and legend in the the art of French post-Impressionist painter.

    With 150 paintings on loan from top museums around the world, including the Hermitage in St Petersburg and Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the exhibit covers a full range of Gauguin’s work.

    Paul Gauguin. Artista di Mito e Sogno (Paul Gauguin. Artist of Myth and Dreams) opens with the artist’s earliest experiments, dominated by Impressionist techniques, and chart his move towards Cloisonnism, with its bold patches of colour and black lines.

    The later section of the show looks at his shift towards the movement he helped pioneer, Synthetism, which sought to place an equal emphasis on colour and form, while expressing the artist’s feelings about the subject. According to the US curator of the exhibit, Stephen Eisenmann, the common thread between many of the works is the idea that Gauguin “belonged to Rome as much as to France and the Pacific”. The artist’s yearning for the past and his fascination with so-called Primitive art are rooted in the legends of Rome, claims Eisenmann. “The treasures of ancient Rome include its myths and dreams of a golden age,” he explained.

    “This cultural heritage, recreating remote times and places dominated by perfect peace and abundance, is represented in the poetry and prose of Ovid, Virgil and other Roman authors”. Yet despite this starting point, the exhibition aims to present a broad range of work from different periods in Gauguin’s career, reflecting his classical work, as well as his more symbolic pieces. It features a number of his most famous works, including several paintings from his years in Tahiti, such as Black Pigs (1891) and his portraits of young Tahitian women, as well as his self-portraits.

    In addition, there is a selection of works from his period in the Breton area of Pont Aven, during his final, brief stint in France before he settled indefinitely in the Pacific. The exhibition is on show at Rome’s Vittoriano Complex until February 3.


  3. Thanks for the link.

    I have written about the whole question of the modern art confluct of the 1930s, especially as a result of The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art. But sometimes it doesn’t make sense. The 1939 exhibition was hardly radical. Burdett was very very cautious, in his choices. And as you said, people seemed to have a great time looking at the art objects.

    The three relevant posts are:
    1. Traditional Vs Modern Art: 1930s Australia
    2. “Addled Art”: dishonest art dealers
    3. “Addled Art” by Lionel Lindsay

    Best wishes
    Art and Architecture, mainl


  4. Thank you for your comment, Hels. Sometimes in themselves not really very radical exhibitions may still anger conservatives. That may say much on the conservatives, and less on the exhibitions.


  5. Pingback: Old ‘Van Gogh’ not by Van Gogh. New Van Gogh discovered | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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