The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ main exhibition galleries have been transformed into a space for enchanted looking. Current blockbuster Sydney Moderns sees iconic Modernist works hung alongside scenes created by lesser-known names with prints, drawings and photographs leading the viewer into the juncture between high art and commercial creativity that shaped our city in the ’20s and ’30s.
Co-curators Deborah Edwards and Denise Mimmocchi present the visuality of this place in time by means of five themes – colour, modern life, still life, landscape and paths to Australian abstraction – rather than allowing the exhibition’s structural basis to be governed by style. It is this thematic progression that allows viewers to journey across the cultural conservatism and growth buffeted against the lows of economic depression and world war that defined modern Sydney before returning to optimism when the Old World died.
Sydney Moderns will excite art history students (in particular) with its offering of seminal works by textbook heroes Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre – two artists who took the linking of sound and vision as their central artistic agenda. The Fritz Lang quality of modernist photographer Cecil Bostock’s Phenomena, an arresting work depicting disorienting shapes and lines suspended between light and dark, will also rein in those privy to the era’s preference for dramatic tonal contrast.
The exhibition drives home the collective spirit of the age and its burgeoning energy by encouraging some wonderful encounters with the work. The work of Sydney’s very own Great Moderns is testament to a past reality that held high hopes and dreams for the future – a future viewers see realised in their current reality.
In a nutshell Sydney Moderns is a collection-driven, period show with a thematic hang – a meat and veg proposition for any institution worth its gift shop. Edwards and Mimmocchi should be congratulated on a staggering work of scholarship that revives an area of local history.
BY ALEX SUTCLIFFE