A biography of painting - part 4

20th century modernism

In the latter years of the twentieth century I thought it was important to look again at the beginning of the century. A time when visual language was redefining, or reconstructing itself. I focused on cubism as to me this represented a visual reorganisation of space, an intellectual reconstruction of perception and gave the western world an uncompromising art that confronted a society that was to go on to experience wars, the depression, political and psychological turmoil both socially and for the individual. There seems something traumatic about the 20th century. Industrialisation and technology had difficult consequences culturally and psychologically.

I had read a book on English Pop Art and was surprised that the author of this book considered the exhibition of Australian art at the Whitechapel Gallery(Recent Australian Art,1961) to be an influence on the development of British Pop Art. This made me consider why this would be so. Were the British looking at Australian mid-century modernism differently from how we were taught to look at it?

So for a time I was interested in how 20th century modernism was interpreted by Australian painters during and in the years immediately after the second world war. I use the word "interpreted" as I think it was just that - this made it different and was the source of its "pop" aspect. It was how a relatively small and isolated clique of painters, looking at illustrations in art books and magazines of the time, responded to what they thought was going on overseas.

Australia was very cut off from the world during the war and possibly during the depression beforehand. It was a very conservative and insular society that easily marginalised its artists, who retreated to suburban enclaves and tight knit social groups. This was a time when to speak a foreign language publicly, to wear your hair long and even to wear suede shoes was to invite abuse and marginalisation.


Albert Tucker 1945

Pablo Picasso 1928


Pablo Picasso offers so much for the painter who wants to reference twentieth century modernism. This was also the case with Francis Picabia, who it seems had mapped out every aspect of post-modernism and late twentieth century art beforehand. Certainly Picasso was a modernism cliché that anyone with even the faintest interest in art could read. Also Picasso provided me with a whole style to refer to, to use as if it were a texture or colour - Cubism

[A collection of work referencing Cubism].

I was also interested in De Chirico, much for the same reason I admired Picabia, in that he continued his work beyond that for which he became initially known. Although he complained that no one liked his later work and in his later years had to "fake" his own earlier style. He too was a precursor to post-modernism. I appropriated De Chirico's mannequin, which I used to signify the modernist artist. Possibly for the same reasons De Chirico used it in the first place.

In the paintings of this period I have continued my interest in depicting an emotional state using references to van Gogh's turbulent skies, cyprus trees and his chair, combined with de Chirico and Picasso. As stated above these were for me like colours on my palette. The texture of the inherent art implied narrative that all painting references - either inadvertently or by intention.

[ Click here for images of these paintings ]



Giorgio de Chirico
The attributes of civilisation are constructed within the individuals that create it. We are individuals, part of society and aware of history.


Pierse,Simon (2012). An Antipodean Summer: Australian Artists in London, 1950–1965. Ashgate, Surrey.
A review of this book can be found here: