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Theatre of representations

December 2008–January 2009, no. 307

Modern Times: The untold story of modernism in Australia edited by Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara (eds)

Theatre of representations

December 2008–January 2009, no. 307
'MODERN TIMES constantly challenges the reader to consider the nature of modernity and of modernism and its structure.’ Virginia Spate’s lucid preface to the volume articulates why this handsomely illustrated and well-researched book is such a ground-breaking history of Australian modernism. It acts as a companion volume to Modernism and Australia: Documents on Art Design and Architecture 1917–1967 (2007), which was an anthology of primary source documents including diaries, letters, talks and manifestos. These revealed Australia’s engagement with international modernist trends and the role of interior and fashion design in developing modernist principles. These developments occurred despite the Australian conservative government’s opposition to them, particularly when it came to the area of fine arts practice. Modern Times is aimed at a broader readership than its predecessor and is connected with a touring exhibition on show at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum until 15 February 2009. The book includes twenty-five articles written by academics, artists and curators from a range of different disciplines, including visual art, design, architecture, animation, fashion, popular culture, film and photography. These articles are divided into five themes that cover abstraction, the body, the city, space age, and electric signs and spectacles.

A conceptually sophisticated introduction by curator Ann Stephen, architectural historian Philip Goad and art historian Andrew McNamara sets up the framework for this collection. It argues that Australia must be seen as a ‘theatre of representations’. Modernist ideas, it suggests, impacted upon the making of diverse forms across a range of media that crossed specific discipline boundaries. This argument challenges the previous accounts of Australian modernism, which tended to stress a ‘formalist, insular approach’. The introduction also opposes the previous ‘mimetic and imitative accounts’ that stressed the ‘parochial’ relationship between the metropolitan centres of London, Paris and New York on the one hand, and Australia on the other. Previous accounts also failed to acknowledge the complex and contradictory nature of Australian modernism that emerges in Modern Times. Bernard Smith’s Australian Painting (1962) for example, was notable when it was first published because it emphasised the significance of Australian painting during an era in which the focus was upon modernist art produced within the metropolitan centres of New York and London. However, Smith’s historical narrative is limited to the fine arts practice produced by (in the main) male settler Australian artists.

Sarah Scott reviews 'Modern Times: The untold story of modernism in Australia' by Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara (eds)

Modern Times: The untold story of modernism in Australia

edited by Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara (eds)

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