remembering Australian modernism

This is looking back to the work of Wolfgang Sievers and more specifically to his photographs of the Adelaide Festival Theatre.  Sievers was a modernist Australian  photographer who specialized in industrial photography and whose design roots lay in the Bauhaus.  Sievers wanted to show that Australia was an advanced industrial nation rather than a producer of raw material and agricultural products;  that industrial technology could be humanized; and that the craft work of photography produces art objects that express the vision of the artist.

Siever's work, along with  other Australian modernists in the visual arts, is usually interpreted in terms of a narrative or discourse which positions  Australia as 'provincial' and whose culture has been derived from elsewhere. 

Historically, Australians, living in a settler colony,  lacked their own cultural traditions,  and so they  created their local or national culture by  appropriating bits or fragments  from the  cultures of the imperial centres. The next step was to find a possibility of originality in Australia within this relationship of dependency between centre and periphery. 

The key text here is Bernard Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific. In this text Smith argued that  European  generated concepts and visual design are not simply imported and assimilated,  but are also transformed by the experience of the regional culture into a hybrid form, which in turn informs the national tradition. The originality lies in the interpretation of the overseas influences and concepts as expressed in the work produced  within Australia.

Unlike the US no  institutional offshoot of the  Bauhaus was established in Australia,  and so  the worn-out  pre-modern design clichés of traditionalist Australia remained locked into place. The modernist style--- that is, geometry of  form, clarity, sharp angles and straight lines--- only emerged in the 1960s. This was  40 years after the Bauhaus was first established in Weimar Germany by Walter Gropius, with its emphasis on founding a  new utopian language of colour and form. 

Hence the sense of Australia as being a provincial and conservative culture hostile to modernist art by those migrant artists fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany in the early 30's and soon after from most of Europe.   Hence their  need to ‘de-provincialise’ Australia  by providing expanded cultural horizons through responding to an emerging industrial Australia by  embracing an international modernist  art (abstraction) with a universal language. 

According to this vision of modernity Australian culture was to be made continuously modern, Australian photography could become part of the art institution,  and Australian visual culture  could be internationalised. This European modernism, with its contempt for the aesthetic forms of the past and its celebration of the machine, envisioned a world cleansed of traditional forms and hierarchies of values. Modernism celebrated the romance of cities, the healthy body and the ideals of abstraction and functionalism in design.

The American formalist  modernism of Clement Greenberg overlaid this 'new way of seeing' with an emphasis on the  concept of medium specificity. In his texts Greenberg argued that there were inherent qualities specific to each different artistic medium, and part of the modernist project involved creating artworks that were more and more 'about' their particular medium. Abstract  modernism in the higher arts (ie., painting and sculpture) represented a withdrawal from reality to pursue their self-reflexive exploration of formal problems, whilst  photography was left to get on with its routine (pre-modernist) task of picturing the world.

John Szarkowski argued the modernist case  for art photography as a specific medium by outlining the specific characteristics of the medium in The Photographer's Eye. These unique characteristics---the thing itself, the detail, the frame,  time, and vantage point---- differentiate the photographic medium  from other visual art-forms such as painting or printmaking. Photography for the American formalists was a specific type of medium with its own seeing and aesthetic. 

This formalism  offered  straight photography a bridge into the art gallery and art market; into a world where style was the means of histyorical evaluation  and  the autonomy of art was translated into a space constituted by discrete objects linearly hung on austere white walls to be  viewed by the gaze of  the disinterested  spectator.  Modernism became the official culture of the art institution--galleries, magazines, market, academia--- and it defined the agenda for institutional collecting, exhibiting, research and scholarship and histories.