Dorrit Black's Modern Art Centre
Late in 1929, following two years of study in London and Paris, the Adelaide-born artist Dorrit Black returned to Sydney and began searching for premises in which to establish a studio and gallery for the display of modern art. She brought back from Europe a burning passion to promote the ideas of the two famous French cubists with whom she had studied: André Lhote, one of the most renowned and influential teachers of modernism in Europe, and Albert Gleizes. Black's gallery, the Modern Art Centre, Sydney, which she established in 1931, was an attempt to enliven and diversify the options for artists and students in Australia. It was the first gallery in Australia to devote itself to modernism and one of the first galleries to be run by a woman.
Although linocut had been taught at the Sydney Art School by Thea Proctor and Henry Gibbons, Black first explored it in London and it was from Flight that she began to learn the principles of modern design. Flight's emphasis on geometric order and the golden section reveals an awareness of the work of Lhote and Gleizes, whose published texts on cubism were widely read in the United Kingdom at the time. Black became increasingly interested in cubist theories and, after three months at the Grosvenor School, she left for Paris to, in her own words, 'acquire a definite understanding of the aims and methods of the modern movement and, in particular, of the cubists'.
Black followed in the footsteps of her Sydney Art School friends, Grace Crowley and Anne Dangar, enrolling at the Académie Lhote in Montparnasse. Lhote attended classes twice a week: on Monday mornings to pose the model and talk to new students, and on Fridays, when he would criticise each student's work individually. 'You must be classic', Lhote instructed. 'See nothing in the nude, but the straight lines, the angles, the curves, the tones cold and warm, the ... dimensions, etc. And when you have done this for a whole week, you find you have made a form which resembles a nude, the resemblance is the recompense of the seventh day.'
Black returned to Australia filled with a missionary zeal, keen to share and promote the teachings of the French cubists to the artists of Sydney. However, back in Sydney, she was struck by the conservatism and provincialism which continued to define the Australian art world. Claude Flight wrote to her in 1930: 'I know how difficult it must be for you my dear Dorrit Black, out of touch with everything in the art line and without sympathetic surroundings and probably in a country that does not help towards making pictures.'
Two commercial galleries in Sydney took a particular interest in modern art in the 1930s: Macquarie Galleries - under the auspices of directors John Young and Basil Burdett - and Grosvenor Galleries, both of which had begun to exhibit the work of modernists such as Grace Cossington Smith, Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin. Although both galleries showed a mixture of academic and avant-garde artists, the latter gained broader acceptance as the decade proceeded. One of the first and most influential groups of modernist artists in Sydney was the Contemporary Group, led by Thea Proctor, which held its first exhibition at Grosvenor Galleries in 1926 and continued to stage popular annual exhibitions throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.
It was within this context that Black launched herself into establishing the Modern Art Centre. By 1931 she had found a suitable location at 56 Margaret Street in Sydney. The building had already served as an art school run by J. S. Watkins, an artist and Trustee of Sydney's National Art Gallery of New South Wales (now the Art Gallery of New South Wales) from 1932. At the time, this part of the city, not far from Circular Quay, was full of artists' studios - those of Thea Proctor, Grace Crowley and Rah Fizelle, James Cant and Dora Chapman, Douglas and Dorothy Dundas and Norman Lindsay to name a few - and Grosvenor Galleries were in nearby George Street.
Black's decision to open the Modern Art Centre was driven by a similar desire to promote the teachings of Lhote and Gleizes. In her speech at the opening of the centre's first exhibition on 16 March 1932 she outlined her reasons for establishing the new venue:
Within the last twelve years or so there has been springing up in Sydney a small group of painters who have become dissatisfied with the standards of realistic art that we have all grown up with, and have turned for inspiration to the new ideas that are already so firmly established in Europe. Some of these painters have been content with the modified form of conservative modernism that prevails for the most part in England; and their work is already fairly well known in Sydney through the Society of Artists and the Macquarie Galleries. Others have gone further, and in a direction that is at present less generally understood. These painters have drawn their inspiration chiefly from the French school; the school that has grown up in Paris, though many of its members belong to other nationalities. It was particularly in order to bring the work of this Australian group who are showing here today more freely before the public that the Modern Art Centre was started.
Although short-lived the Modern Art Centre played an important role in fostering European modernism in Sydney. Nancy Hall described it at the time as the 'only source of inspiration and opening to a wider vision'. In his ground-breaking two-volume book, The Story of Australian Art
(1934), William Moore confirmed the centre's role in providing fresh impetus to the modern movement. In less than two years it had hosted an impressive list of small but significant exhibitions. Some of the artists involved, such as Wakelin and Cossington Smith, were already established. Others (Crowley, Balson and Fizelle) would later become some of modernism's most important Australian exponents. The centre brought together some of the most articulate promoters of modernism, notably Black herself, the writer and patron Ethel Anderson and Eleonore Lange. As Thea Proctor later acknowledged, one of Dorrit Black's greatest skills, and one of the centre's most important achievements, was in recognising and promoting new talent, and in creating a fertile environment for the exchange of ideas. Sarah Thomas
This article appears in excerpted form. You can read the full article in the Spring 2006 issue of Art & Australia.