When we think of Modernism in Australia, the roll call doesn’t naturally drift towards women artists.
While that has more recently been readdressed through exhibitions like Making Modernism – showing works of Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston – and the current Know My Name project at the National Gallery of Australia, there are still vast gaps in popular knowledge.
Two major survey exhibitions sought to re-frame that omission some decades later.
Art Gallery of NSW senior curator of Australian art Denise Mimmocchi, in collaboration with Heide Museum of Modern Art’s artistic director Lesley Harding, have curated Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion, which recently opened in Sydney.
AGNSW director Dr Michael Brand said the exhibition aims to rectify Hinder’s profile as one of the most important and underestimated Australian sculptors of the 20th century.
He continued: ‘Margel Hinder was an agent for cultural change and part of the first generation of abstract artists in Australia. This important retrospective reveals how vital Hinder was in the making of Sydney’s modernism and for asserting the place of sculpture within it.’
Concurrently in Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) Curator of Australian Art, Tracey Lock, has pulled together nearly 130 works for, Clarice Beckett: The present moment – the gallery’s flagship exhibition for the 2021 Adelaide Festival.
Lock told ArtsHub: ‘I have really pushed her into a new understanding … After decades of hanging her work, working on this show, I came to the realisation she was going somewhere else that has not been recognised. It has just taken history to catch up!’
The gallery explained that following Beckett’s early death in 1935, for the next thirty-five years her work vanished from art history, before being rescued by Dr Rosalind Hollinrake.
Hollinrake salvaged 369 of the artist’s neglected canvases from a remote, open-sided shed in rural Victoria. The present moment includes many of those salvaged paintings, and has used the catalyst of a recent major gift of 21 Beckett paintings by Alastair Hunter OAM – and which make AGSA’s holdings of Beckett’s works the most significant in Australia – to re-think en mass her contribution to Modernism.
Why these great modernists were overlooked by history
Most curators have an artist in the wings of their thinking, and who travels with them across their career and constant whisper for attention.
It is easy to say, that for both Lock and Mimmocchi, these survey exhibitions consummate that curatorial passion.
‘It has been a long-term desire of mine, so it was funny in way, that it came up at same time when we are having this second look at the contribution of women of artists,’ said Mimmocchi.
She continued: ‘The AGNSW [also] consciously works towards gender parity in our collection, acquisitions and exhibition, so it seemed a great time to be doing this one.’
Mimmocchi said that there were a number of contributing factors, aside from gender, which perhaps added to the lack of limelight.
‘Hinder was an artist marginalised by gender, but she was a sculptor as well. We tend to pay more attention to painters. Sculpture has never been brought into the broader focus in the way that it should have been,’ Mimmocchi said.
‘[Plus] From the 1960s on, Margel focused mainly on public sculpture, so she did not have that profile as an exhibiting artist might. It is one of the contradictions – she did big bold public works, but she stated she didn’t like exhibiting.’
Lock said the timing of the Beckett show was also one not exclusively hinged on gender.
‘A lot has changed in how we think about Australian art history since Clarice Beckett’s last major exhibition, some twenty years back,’ Lock said. She hinges her rethink of Beckett’s oeuvre on a spiritual, or philosophical framework, rather than the usual atmospheric explanation of her landscapes.
‘Nobody understood her at the time, and afterwards,’ she said. ‘The spiritual in art is a kind of dirty word – Ros [Hollinrake] felt it, but said she couldn’t go there when she wrote her book on Beckett … but rather had to be seen seriously in society of the day.’
Lock told ArtsHub that another catalyst for the exhibition was that there was no longer anything in print on her. ‘It is amazing, everything is out of print, so if want to read up on Beckett, and do the old fashioned thing and go to a book shop, there’s nothing around.’
Universal synchronicity, rather than uncanny parallels
In 1931 Beckett’s work was included in an exhibition at The Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York City.
‘It would have been the first show of women in the 21st century,’ said Lock. ‘That institution was all about focusing on spiritualism, and [artist] Frank Hinder was there at the same time. So here is Clarice reading all the same things as Margel and Frank.’
Mimmocchi continued: ‘When we look at Australian art histories, you become aware how the major players – the artists who contributed something so distinct – many were women. Margel is definitely one, and in the same way so is Clarice.’
Lock said that while a lot of Beckett’s more abstract works were burnt by her father, there is an inherent radicalism even in her most conservative paintings, which break ever compositional rule.
‘When I was thinking about her more and more, it became so clear to me that [Beckett] was tapping into some transcendent realm – yes she was working in 20s and 30s Modern period – but the more I came to know her work I recognised she was tapping into another realm – entering an abstract space that was very experiential,’ said Lock.
Lock described Beckett as international, despite never having travelled outside of Melbourne and only a short 16-year career.
‘She was incredibly well read, and was really up-to-date with international trends in philosophy, science and literature – tapping into, and thinking over, Modernist trends from around the world – she was reading what Mondrian, Kandinsky and O’Keefe were reading. She was very pioneering in that sense. She wasn’t this little old unmarried woman dragging a trolly around doing still lifes,’ continued Lock.
In a similar way Hinder was equally radical.
Mimmocchi said that looking across Hinder’s career, each moment played, ‘a transformative role in how we think about sculpture.’
Her constructive works of suspended light from the 1950s, take sculpture off the plinth, for example. ‘She has not been acknowledged for the role she played in pushing parameters of what sculpture is in this country, ‘added Mimmocchi.
Married to the artist Frank Hinder, Mimmocchi said that their relationship did not play into the conservative narrative of gender roles at the time; both were supportive of each other.
By contrast, when Beckett asked her father to build her a studio he said she could work at the kitchen table, insinuating that was were a woman’s place should be.
The visitor experience
Rather than a chronological sweep across her career, Lock has laid out the Adelaide show as a passage through a single day – moving from dawn to twilight.
She explained: ‘There is only very nuanced development in her work across time, but what was really clear was this interest in temporarily shift in time the veiled of light – the sense of the eternal within the ephemeral
‘She doesn’t paint great moments in history, important locations or people; it is everyday themes that track the shift in time – the course of one single day that universal concept – and that way our audience will feel they are walking in her footsteps.’
AGNSW’s Hinder show also bucks the chronological survey model.
‘We start forward in time, in the 1950s and a [pivotal] series in her career which she showed at the David Jones Gallery (1957) – totally abstract suspended works, some of them motorised, she explained. ‘It is a really beautiful theatrical moment.’
The exhibition then moves through the distinct phases of Margel’s career – including a group of her maquettes – to conclude with a digital immersive reconstruction of some of Hinder’s major public sculptures, created by environment designer and 3D artist Andrew Yip.
Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion is presented at the Art Gallery of NSW on 30 January – 2 May 2021 and will tour to Heide Museum of Modern Art on 30 June – 10 October 2021.
Clarice Beckett: The present Moment is showing at Art Gallery of South Australia 27 February – 16 May 2021.