Review: Women and Modern Australian printmaking

Guest contributor Belinda Hungerford visits the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition Modern Impressions: Australian Prints from the Collection.

Modernism arrived in Australia at about the same time as other parts of the world and reached all aspects of Australian culture, with its crowning glory arguably the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Modernism was especially embraced by women with its designs quickly adopted in the domestic sphere through soft furnishings, glassware, crockery, furniture, lighting and women’s clothing. Publications such as the Home magazine were also instrumental in promoting the modernist aesthetic. Modern art began to appear on the walls with women not just admirers but practitioners too.

Ethel L Spowers Special edition 1936 colour linocut on thin ivory laid tissue 28.2 x 22.4 cm image; 35.4 x 25.7 cm sheet (irreg.) Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased 1977

During the 1920s and 1930s women dominated the modern art movement with various speculations relating to social change as to why. In conjunction with the loss of many men during WWI, the profitability of art-making had declined between the wars resulting in a lessening number of male artists. This, in tandem with the growth of social freedom, a development particularly beneficial for women, meant that more and more women were able to pursue careers with many choosing an artistic life. Those with independent means also took the opportunity to travel and study abroad.

Interestingly, the modern movement itself challenged the traditional artistic hierarchies, subject matter and techniques, opening up a sphere where innovation and changing tastes were embraced. Suddenly, signifiers of modernity such as the urban environment, city landscapes, industry and machinery was acceptable subject matter for art. Relief printmaking was prevalent with women artists during this period with the linocut particularly popular due to the cheapness of materials and the ease of technique, no expensive equipment necessary as kitchen cutlery could do the job.

Currently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the permanent collection galleries is Modern Impressions: Australian Prints from the Collection, a wonderful and varied selection of works that highlight the popularity modern printmaking had with a large number of artists, particularly women. The introductory panel explains that the artists wanted to capture the spirit of the new age and that printmaking was the ideal medium to demonstrate the dissolving barriers between fine art, craft and design.

Many of the artists featured strongly believed that good design was crucial in art and that printmaking was the ideal medium to demonstrate design principles. Ethel Spowers was one of these independent women who focused on style and design and her work in the collection is a standout. To see her prints up close is a real pleasure, to observe the texture and translucency of the paper, the fine detail and placement of the inks, the bold colours and the often intimate scale of the works.

After briefly attending art school in Paris, Spowers studied drawing and painting at the National Gallery School in Melbourne and held her first solo exhibition 1920. Spowers returned to Europe in 1921 to study in London and Paris and in 1929 she began studying under the influential British printmaker Claude Flight at the Grosvenor School. After being exposed to Flight’s teachings of the linocut she took on an arresting modernity in her work and began to explore the dynamics of city living and the dichotomy of mechanised industry and agriculture as well has her favoured subject, children. Her work is characterised by its basic shapes and exacting reduction to flat decorative colour in combination with bold pattern and rhythmic design.

The linocut, ‘Special edition’ (1936), is concerned with life in the metropolis, with a sea of opened newspapers with deeply buried anonymous heads stretching across the composition. Spowers has utilised the receding white, unprinted areas to convey spatial depth and the repeated newspaper image creates rhythmic movement while also suggesting the urgent rush to stay informed about a rapidly changing world, a world becoming smaller by means of global communication. The newspaper world was close to Spowers, her father being the proprietor of the Melbourne Argus. It’s easy to imagine a contemporary version: a sea of downcast heads gazing at smartphones.

Ethel L Spowers Wet afternoon 1929-1930 linocut, printed from four blocks on thin ivory laid tissue 23.9 x 20.2 cm image (irreg.); 31.1 x 23.1 cm sheet Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased 1968 Photo: AGNSW

‘Wet afternoon’ (1929-30) is a real delight with its crowd of umbrellas in the rain hiding all but a tiny girl, her isolation made prominent by her individuality. Spowers’ confident use of white with judicious touches of reds, greens and blues creates a simple but effective palette.

Upon returning home Spowers became a strong advocate of the Australian modernist art movement, alongside other women artists. The circulating of ideas and methods was a significant and established role of the returning artist and these women played their part through writing, teaching, exhibiting and selling work, founding groups and establishing art centres. It’s really wonderful that Art Gallery of NSW is giving these women printmakers the prominence they deserve.

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