The Sydney Harbour Bridge is half-finished, pre-CityRail trains are newfangled contraptions and David Jones has just opened its doors.

Sydney artists realise academic techniques just don’t cut the mustard to capture their new metropolis, so take radical cues from Europe and the United States. Almost 100 years later the Art Gallery of New South Wales is revisiting these fearless Sydney artists, 180 works of our very own Sydney Moderns.

Handpicked from our own state galleries and international private collections, Sydney Moderns is a comprehensive essay of local artists between the wars, who found novel techniques to capture our newly cosmopolitan city, names like Margaret Preston, Max Dupain, Roy de Maistre, Grace Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelin and Harold Cazneaux among lesser known artists dubbed the ‘Lost Moderns’. “It tells this great story about Sydney in the ’20s and ’30s and the exciting period of art that was developing at the time,” says co-curator Denise Mimmocchi. “The city was taking shape…the height of the city went up, roads were widened out, it really did become a modern metropolis.”

With Tumblr and Pinterest decades from invention, modern Australian artists had restricted means to discover new forms of expression outside textbook academia. With Europe and the United States leading movements like post-impressionism and fauvism, isolated Australian artists kept on the pulse by flicking through magazines. “Artists really responded to what was around them… they’d seen reproductions of Van Gogh, Gaugin and Seurat, these giants of European modernism,” explains Mimmocchi. “But they were just taking on elements that they could use to evoke a sense of their own experience of modernity and place… It’s not just copying forms of post-impressionism, it’s actually re-visualising them in a way to evoke a sense of their own city.”

The exhibition beams with Sydney pride from the very first room, filled to the eaves with celebratory renderings of Sydney’s number one postcard bragger, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As much as we now take it for granted as a highway from the CBD to North Sydney, artists in the ’20s were flabbergasted by this emblem of modern innovation, most notably Neutral Bay-born artist Grace Cossington Smith. “Quite a number of Sydney artists responded to the Bridge as it was being built, you know, it was this major symbol of Sydney’s modernity,” says Mimmocchi. “[Cossington Smith] used to sit over on the North Shore as the Bridge was slowly coming into being. She created these fantastic responses in colour that were really not so much about the building of the Bridge but this sort of… celebration of modern life,” says Mimmocchi.

Unlike most blockbuster period-focused exhibitions, Sydney Moderns doesn’t follow a chronological chapter path through the art history books, curators Mimmocchi and Deborah Edwards instead looking to themed rooms. Experimentation with colour and light kicks things off, with artists such as Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre straying from naturalistic expression through dazzling canvases of saturated colour. The second section will make you rethink your own Sydney, exploring the idea of modern life and the city itself. “Artists were living in this era of transformation; the city was being transformed as much as their art was being transformed… they work in sync together,” says Mimmocchi.

Once you’ve become acquainted with the budding, bustling Sydney of the ‘20s and ‘30s, Sydney Moderns takes a closer look at genre developments, to the dominant Australian artform, landscape, and still life painting, an experimental genre that began to hold considerably more weight in the ’20s. Tables and apples were no longer the bottom of the art food chain.

Sydney Moderns closes with a section called Paths To Australian Abstraction, a nod to previous AGNSW blockbuster Paths To Abstraction, focusing on our own cubist master. “We end with Ralph Balson, who had a show of completely abstract works, which shed any resemblance to the figurative art and went completely abstract in 1940,” says Mimmocchi. “In a way the exhibition builds up to that moment of pure colour and abstraction. It ends with a bang!”


‘Sydney Moderns: Art for a New World’ runs until October 7 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Click here for more.