378class="post-378 post type-post status-publish format-standard hentry category-uncategorized"
The Garden at Heide, Monoprint, Pigment, Acrylic on Arches 88 paper W 6 inches x H 8 inches
The Garden at Heide
Monoprint, Pigment, Acrylic on Arches 88 paper
W 6 inches x H 8 inches, Copyright Erica Tandori 2016

A few weeks ago, my eldest daughter announced “Mum, why don’t we go to Heide Gallery this morning?”

For those who don’t know, Heide Museum of Modern Art, located in Melbourne’s leafy north eastern suburb of Bulleen, was home to one of Australian art’s power couples of the past century, John and Sunday Reed. Heide is considered an important cultural institution in Australian art.

(See the Heide website https://www.heide.com.au

It was here that some well-known Australian artists and writers of the mid 20th century came together to discuss art and life, and where Sidney Nolan conceived his famous Ned Kelly series of paintings. No doubt, the old weatherboard house, nestled amongst the gums and large oak tree, also harboured a good deal of scandal, and thoughts of visiting the house fills me with disquiet, as if though the former occupants will still be there, and, engaged in heated conversation, will look up at me as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing in our house?”

(Sounds like they were pretty busy up the bush in those days!) See Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed by Kendrah Morgan and Leslie Harding reviewed by Sydney Morning Herald  September 2015

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/heide-founders-john-and-sunday-reeds-love-entanglements-revealed-in-new-book-20150915-gjn2ke.html

But on this glorious Melbourne day, with the sky a most perfect blue, and the air still and warm, it was not just scandal I was thinking of. It had been many years since I had ventured to Heide as part of a tour with my art school, and I wanted to touch base with this iconic home and gallery. So we took off, water bottles and snacks in hand, along the freeway to Bulleen.

The gallery has certainly come a long way. The old house where the Reeds had lived, was still there, in perfect order. But now new and modern facilities have sprung up on the grounds of the suburban home, complete with a separate modern gallery, orange grove, gardens, paths, a cafe and sculpture park.

I could not believe our good fortune, for today an exhibition featuring the Modernist female artists, American Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Australians Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, was under way, and crowds were already gathering in the air-conditioned foyer.

But there was also action downstairs in the female toilets, And I must mention this incident because it was highly amusing.

I was waiting for my turn in the bathroom and wondering why the door took so long to open. After some time, an elegantly dressed woman emerged from the cubicle, wringing her hands. She came towards me, presenting her outstretched fingers to my nose.

“Smell this”, she exclaimed, “They have the most beautiful hand cream here”. And indeed, they did.  No wonder this lady had taken so long in the toilet, for it was truly a well appointed, modern, tasteful, most stylish cubicle, the kind of space one could linger in, and worry about nothing but playing with the bottles of exquisite hand soaps and creams.

As I stood at the basin, rubbing my hands with this adorable hand cream and smiling at the incident that had just occurred with the Elegant Lady, I looked up at the mirror and saw an amazing quote.

One of the gallery staff had stenciled a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe onto the large mirror that hung over the wash basin. It read:

“The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters”.

I had not known that today I would be seeing the work of this great painter firsthand. Georgia O’Keeffe, as I had discovered during my PhD research into art and vision loss, was a fellow macular degenerate, suffering age-related macular degeneration in later life which put a halt to her painting career.

So now that bathroom adventures were out of the way, my daughter and I ventured into the gallery itself, which was becoming very busy with sightseers.

In one room, there were many paintings by Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, and in the other room paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe.

But I simply was not prepared for what I experienced.

It was the strangest thing, and perhaps I can describe the feeling as akin to having been fed bread and water for too long, and suddenly being presented with a massive double decker chocolate gateaux. Too much great art to feast on is like a sugar rush.

I found myself standing among many Margaret Preston paintings bearing down on me from the walls. The paintings were not necessarily large or astonishing in their subject matter. They did not have to be.

These paintings had a presence that was unbelievable. They had a power that reached across time and cultural distance. They were overwhelming in their composition and mastery.

Each painting was jostling for my undivided attention, and as they hung side by side in the room, I could not decide which one to consume first.

Grace Cossington Smith’s work was equally compelling.

It seemed as if though each painting was communicating directly to me: “this is how I draw my line, this is how I apply my colour, this is how I use my brushstrokes, this is how I show you the essence of what I see, and this is exactly how you shall see what I see”

I was struck, I must confess, by the mastery of these women painters.

What was it that made their work transcend everything, even my low vision?

Perhaps it was their unerring, unapologetic, dedication to the craft of painting, and all the elements that make a painting really work: line, form, colour, composition, … all operating together to give a painting presence.

It is not simply what one sees with the eye and diligently records, that makes a painting great. And you don’t just see a great painting with your eyes.

No, these women were trying to deeply engage me in the act of experiencing something, not just seeing it. In fact, I did not have to see these paintings perfectly, with perfect vision. These ‘things’ on the wall they had created – they were alive and eagerly, intelligently, communicating with me about their own existence.

By this stage I was already overwhelmed. The Elegant Lady had blown her mind over the hand soap, and I was having a similar experience with the Prestons and the Cossingtion Smiths.

We turned into the next room and there was a large crowd gathering around one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.

Now I was feeling  quite  dizzy and the atmospheric, ephemeral brushstrokes of the Georgia O’Keefe paintings took me into a state of anxiety. I was struggling to find a painting that had enough ground in it – something that could visually anchor me.

Georgia O’Keefe’s work is very different from the Australian modernists, and I was afraid to admit to myself that I didn’t find her paintings shown in this exhibition as compelling as the work of Preston and Cossington Smith, but feeling guilty, I tucked that thought away very quickly, reminding myself of the lovely quote on the bathroom mirror in the gallery toilet; O’Keeffe  is a great painter, and really, like  Manuel in Fawlty Towers , “I know nahting…”

(There is a little documentary on the life and work of Georgia O’ Keeffe, showing some of her amazing early charcoals and abstract paintings, and goes some way to explaining why there may have been a shift in her work after meeting Stieglitz.

See https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-georgia-okeeffe/

And so we wound our way through the old house that was once the home of John and Sunday Reed, where many artists of the past century had ventured to, I imagine, with bottles of wine, and good food, to talk about Life, Art and umm….other things… in Australia.

When I got home I could not stop thinking of the painters whose works I had just seen.

I opened my big book about Margaret Preston and began re-examining the images.

That night perusing my iPad I found an article written by one of my former lecturers about the exhibition I had just seen.

It was an astonishing review of the exhibition.

You can follow the link below to read it.

Making Modernism review: Australian painters Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith tower over American artist Georgia O’Keeffe November 15 2016, by Robert Nelson,

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/melbourne-arts/making-modernism-review-australian-painters-margaret-preston-and-grace-cossington-smith-tower-over-american-artist-georgia-okeeffe-20161114-gspen0.html

I think in the end I learned two things at Heide;

One is that the craft of painting should not be ignored, no matter what the latest trends.

Good technique, and a never-ending quest to keep on improving, makes for a stronger painter. The artists I saw at Heide never stopped learning and working on their craft.

Their work cuts through fashions in art like a hot knife through a slab of butter because of their mastery with paint.

The other thing I learnt was that Australia has some of the world’s greatest artists, and the rest of the world needs to know it.

Making Modernism: Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith (working title)

October 2016 – February 2017

Heide Museum of Modern Art is located at : 7 Templestowe Rd, Bulleen VIC 3105. Ph: 03 9850 1500

Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday and public holidays, 10am-5pm

 

 

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