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Modernism first came to Australia in the mid-1910s through migrants, expatriates, exhibitions and publications. The movement spanned five turbulent decades, including global wars, economic depression, technological advance and massive social change.

Inspired by early European avant-gardes, the modernist movement affected many forms of arts and commerce. While modernism was expressed differently in each of these forms, the common thread was a rejection of traditional representations of the world. The focus was on form over content and style over subject matter. The modernist approach was enabled, in part, by advances in science and technology.

Jeff Carter photograph of the Pasha nightclub

Carter, Jeff (b. 1928), At the Pasha nightclub, Cooma, late 1950s. Image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum

Many aspects of modernism made their way into Australian culture quite freely. By the 1930s, modern style flourished in retail, entertainment, pubs, milk bars, modern swimming pools and fashion. It was not until the late 1950s early 1960s that the realms of architecture, photography, sculpture and fine art received greater acceptance.

However, the unfamiliar language of modern art often met with strong and passionate resistance from Australia's general public and art establishment.

Australia's reception to modernism is a complex story of spasmodic cultural transformation led by avant-garde experiments and the creative exchange between modern artists, designers and architects. From reshaping the environment (in particular city living) to affecting body image, social life and ideals about design, its impact has been profound.


Taking their cue from international modernist movements, including the Bauhaus, abstract expressionism and French symbolism, Australian modernists experimented and collaborated across artistic disciplines.

Better-known modernist groupings include the contemporary art societies in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide; the Arts and Crafts Society; Angry Penguin poets; the Angry Penguin painters, including Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, John Perceval, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester; and the Hill End painters. Smaller projects explored modernist influences too.

Abstract projects and exhibitions

In 1919, Australian artist Roy de Maistre developed a colour-music theory in response to the post First World War emphasis on understanding art, particularly colour, through science. The 'Colour in Art' exhibition of paintings and colour organisations by de Maistre and artist Roland Wakelin did not impress the public, but de Maistre's colour-music theory was patented for interior design, which was a more acceptable expression of modernism.

De Maistre, Roy (1894-1968), Colour chart, 1919, oil on cardboard, 30.5 x 40.5cm. Image courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales: DA63.1968.

In 1943, New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) launched its international cultural exchange program. Australia was a recipient, starting with MOMA's small multiple show and publication, What is Modern Painting?' Since Australian art museums were mostly unsupportive of modern art, exhibitions were hosted by retailers such as David Jones and the Myer Emporium.

In the early 1960s, Melbourne's Gallery A, led by designer and sculptor, Clement Meadmore and manufacturer, Max Hutchinson undertook modernist projects and exhibitions, including Janet Dawson's, The Bauhaus: Aspects and Influence'. However, modern art still lacked public appeal and state support, and Gallery A's vision lasted only three years.

It was not until the 1960s that art museums started hosting modern shows, and with the arrival of MOMA's 1967 exhibition Two decades of American painting', the status and influence of modern art was finally acknowledged.

Aboriginal 'modernism'

From the 1920s, modernist artist Margaret Preston, an Australian of European descent, campaigned for Aboriginal art to be considered as a form of Australian modernism. The boomerang, with its geometric symmetry, was seen as particularly suited to modern design. Preston used Aboriginal symbols and references in her own work.

Margaret PRESTON, Aboriginal bark ornament.

Preston, Margaret (1875-1963), Aboriginal bark ornament [Aboriginal hunt design], 1940, woodcut, printed in black ink, 35.4 x 34.8cm. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 72.143.

Conversely, Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira painted his Western Arrernte landscape by adapting the European landscape style, as a form of exchange between cultures. From his first exhibition in 1938, Namatjira's popularity as a landscape painter of his Arrente country grew. His exhibitions sold out as soon as they were opened and, by the 1950s, Namatjira reproductions adorned the walls of many Australian middle-class living rooms. (Indigenous Rights)

The emergence of 'dot' paintings by Indigenous men from the western deserts of Central Australia in the early 1970s has been called the greatest modern art movement of the twentieth century. Prior to this, most cultural material by Indigenous Australians was collected by anthropologists. Consequently, collections were found in university departments or natural history museums worldwide, not art galleries. That all changed at a place called Papunya and with what became known as the Papunya Tula art movement of the Western Desert.

In contemporary times, Aboriginal designer and entrepreneur, Bill Onus has produced modern furniture and furnishings employing Aboriginal art and motifs.

Modern bodies

The ideal of the fit, healthy body was initially a response to the horrors of the First World War. In Australia, it was enthusiastically incorporated into sun worship, beach culture, modern swimming pools and fashion.


In 1917, Australia's mermaid', Annette Kellerman advocated a fit, healthy and naturally beautiful being for the new woman'. With her trademark one-piece women's swimsuit and publications for women on fitness and beauty, she paved this new way of thinking about women's bodies.

Performance costume, red exercise outfit, womens, cotton, used by Annette Kellerman.

Performance costume, red exercise outfit, women's, cotton, used by Annette Kellerman, Hauco Sport, USA/ England/ Europe, 1920-1940. Image courtesy Powerhouse Museum: 2000/66/27.

Until the 1940s, swimming in ocean baths was seen as part of modern freedom and benefits of Australian life. Beaches became a new place for socialising, sun-worship and fitness. From the 1950s, following Australian swimming successes at the Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964) Olympics, public swimming pools became an essential part of Australian community life. Their multifaceted modern demands necessitated innovative modern designs. James Birrell's design for the Centenary Swimming Pools, Brisbane (195759) was characterised by organic planning and flowing patterns and the 1962 Beatty Park Pool in Perth, built for the Seventh British Empire and Commonwealth Games, incorporated every aspect of modern pool planning.

The 1950s and 1960s saw swimwear fashion change dramatically. Leading the way was Australia's iconic Speedo brand. Speedo's body-clinging swimwear, first styled for competitive sport, later became tailored for modern leisure activities, including swimming and surfing. These popular activities heavily influence Australia's local dress style.

The body in Australia modern art

The body was also a frame of reference for modern Australian artists, who experimented with colour, tone, texture, shape and contrast to depict it. Grace Cossington Smith, for example, used colour to represent chaotic crowd scenes in Rushing (1922); Max Dupain used the female form in experiments with surreal photography, rayographs and montage imagery; Sidney Nolan used the body in experimental collage and paintings; and New Zealand film-maker Len Lye's experimental animated films attempted to represent kinetic energy, addressing aboriginal culture.

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Dart, 1935, gelatin silver photograph, 46.1 x 28.4cm. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia:NGA 82.1068.

City living

Big cities and urban life lent themselves to modernism. For Australia, the path to shaping an urban culture away from rural ties and the suburbs is marked by sites of new activity, including interior design, specialty stores and tall buildings.

Interior design

In 1929, Sydney hosted the Burdekin House Exhibition. Managed and convened by Roy de Maistre, and organised by art entrepreneur Sydney Ure Smith, it featured six rooms that were designed, furnished and decorated in the modern style by artists or art associates, including Thea Proctor, A L Sadler, Adrian Feint, Leon Gellert, Henry Pynor, Frank Weitzel and Hera Roberts. The exhibition was well supported by readers of Ure Smith's popular modern magazine, The Home, as well as advertisers, including department stores.

Pubs and milk bars

The 1930s saw pubs and milk bars emerge as two new kinds of design environment. The New South Wales brewer, Tooth & Co. was keen to mould an image of prestige for its Sydney hotels in order to increase patronage. It transformed many corner pubs into the distinctive curved contours, steel awnings and Hollywood-style Art-Deco features.

The modern milk bar was a new social venue as well as a new design environment. Distinctive for its fluorescent and neon lights, wide entrances, shiny chrome and glass decor, the milk bar was simultaneously a family restaurant, unlicensed cafe and lolly shop. During the 1940s and 1950s, modern design was introduced to milk bars by architects, designers and artists, including Marion Hall Best, Samuel Lipson, Walter Bunning and Hugh Buhrich.

Black and white photo of the interior of the Astoria Cafe.

Astoria Cafe interior, Hunter Street, Newcastle, NSW, late 1940s. Image courtesy N Raftos, from touring exhibition, Selling an American Dream: Australia's Greek Cafe.

Sydney skyline

In 1957, the height limit of buildings in Sydney was increased, and skyscrapers were permitted. Driven by architects such as Neville Gruzman, Nigel Ashton, and renowned modernist Harry Seidler, the high-rise vision allowed for more useable public space. Modernist architectural photographers, such as Wolfgang Sievers, helped to promote acceptance of the new form.

Seidler's Australia Square (1961–67) is widely acknowledged as symbolising Sydney's high-rise modernism. At the time, it was the world's tallest light-weight concrete building, and today is still praised for its sculptural qualities.

Space age designs

The space age provided a new source of modernist inspiration, including new dynamic structures such as domes, shells and spirals. Australia's most outstanding architectural feats of this era include Roy Grounds' Australian Academy of Science, Canberra (1956–59); Jørn Utzon's Sydney Opera House (1957–73); and James Birrell's Wickham Terrace Carpark (1958–61).

Australian Academy of Science building

Hurley, Frank (1885-1962), Australian Academy of Science building, Canberra, 1910-1962, negative 11.7 x 16.2cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23474601.

The rocket was one of the most potent symbols of the space age. In America, its modern, stylish aesthetic was used to design logos, buildings, appliances, automobiles and even toys. In Australia, it became more widely recognisable in the late 1950s following missile projects at the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia. It inspired department stores' space-themed exhibitions; Bill Buckle's sleek Goggomobil Dart (1959); and children's television character, Mr Squiggle's Rocket'.

House of tomorrow'

Architect Robin Boyd exhibited his House of Tomorrow' at Melbourne's Modern Home Exhibition in 1949 as a response to the housing crisis after the Second World War and the need for homes that were economical and well-constructed. However, its simple open plan, flat-roofed light construction proved too challenging for the public. Boyd saw this as part of the ongoing struggle in Australia against conservatism.

A new alliance

In the 1950s and 1960s, Australian culture began to re-orient towards America. In particular, this influenced local modernism towards the use of electronic technology.

Lighting and signage

The use of lighting and signage played an important role in the design of Australia's modern environment. America's commercial approach to the modern, especially through branding and advertising, was particularly influential. City buildings became a new canvas for projecting messages, and the use of modern typeface and lighting allowed commercial operators to associate their business with progress.

The Australian Pavilion

interior of the Australian Pavilion at Expo 67

A modernist vision of Australiathe interior of the Australian Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, 1967. Image courtesy National Archives of Australia: AA1982/206, 28.

At 1939’s New York World’s Fair, and again at Montreal’s Expo 67, modern Australia was presented to a mass audience. Both displays were conceived at critical moments in the alliance with America—pre–Second World War and during the Vietnam War. Each reflects a different local modernism.

In 1939, young Sydney designers, artists and architects projected Australia as a place of travel, tourism and investment. Based on architect John Oldham’s modern vision, the Australian Pavilion team, including Douglas Annand, Max Dupain, Adrian Feint and Margaret Preston reflected a young healthy nation.

Grant and Mary Featherstone's 1967 Expo mark II sound chair. Image courtesy Powerhouse Museum: 86/1308.

Expo 67's interior was designed by Robin Boyd. Based on his house design, the open plan, light-filled living room' and use of natural Australian colours were a representation of sophisticated informality; a different kind of local modernism. This image of Australia was supported by designer Grant Featherstone's technologically innovative Expo Chaira stereo sound chair. It became so popular that a commercial version, 'Expo mark II sound chair' was released soon after.

Useful links

Select modern art galleries

Other select modern art collections

Online resource

Print references

  • Modern Times. The untold story of modernism in Australia, edited by A. Stephen, P. Goad and A. McNamara, (2008), The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne in association with the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Last updated: 12th May 2009
Creators: Rachel Roberts Communications, et al.

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