The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Fed Square

Level 3

14 Jul 17 – 15 Oct 17

The 1930s was a turbulent time in Australia’s history. During this decade major world events, including the Depression and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, shaped our nation’s evolving sense of identity. In the arts, progressive ideas jostled with reactionary positions, and artists brought substantial creative efforts to bear in articulating the pressing concerns of the period.

Brave New World: Australia 1930s encompasses the multitude of artistic styles, both advanced and conservative, which were practised during the 1930s. Included are commercial art, architecture, fashion, industrial design, film and dance to present a complete picture of this dynamic time.

The exhibition charts the themes of celebrating technological progress and its antithesis in the nostalgia for pastoralism; the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ and consumerism; nationalism and the body culture movement; the increasing interest in Indigenous art against a backdrop of the government policy of assimilation and mounting calls for Indigenous rights; the devastating effects of the Depression and the rise of radical politics; and the arrival of European refugees and the increasing anxiety at the impending threat of the Second World War. Brave New World: Australia 1930s presents a fresh perspective on the extraordinary 1930s, revealing some of the social and political concerns that were pertinent then and remain so today.

Background image captions

Ivor Francis
Speed! 1931 (detail)
colour process block print
19.6 x 27.2 cm (block and sheet)
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
South Australian Government Grant 1986 (867G20)
© Art Gallery of South Australia

Discus thrower (c. 1939) {printed} (detail)
gelatin silver photograph
38.5 x 37.5 cm (image)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 2003

Douglas Annand
Max Dupain
Australia c. 1937 (detail)
colour and process lithograph
105.3 x 68.4 cm (image and sheet)
Australian National Maritime Museum
Purchased, 1991 (00015603)
© Courtesy of the artist’s estate

Exhibition labels

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Utopian cities

Modernity reflected what was new and progressive in Australian urban life. The image of the city became an allegory for this in art, and efficiency and speed became watchwords for modernity. Many artists celebrated the city and technological advancements in works utilising a modern style of hard-edged forms, flat colours and dynamic compositions. The engineering marvel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, begun in 1928 and opened in 1932, was an ongoing source of fascination for artists, as were images of building the city, industry and modern modes of transport.

The skyscraper was also a powerful symbol of modern prosperity, especially when the Great Depression cast doubt on the inevitability of progress; hence the advent of tall buildings in Australian cities was hailed with relief and optimism. In 1932, at the peak of the Depression, the tallest building in Melbourne was opened: the Manchester Unity Building at the corner of Swanston and Collins streets. With its ornamental tower and spire taking its overall height to 64 metres, the building was welcomed by The Age newspaper as ‘a new symbol of enterprise and confidence, undaunted by the “temporary eclipse” of the country’s economic fortune’.


In the 1930s the new ‘Modern Woman’ made her appearance as a more serious and emancipated version of the giddy 1920s ‘flapper’. A woman who worked, she often lived alone in one of the new city apartment buildings, visited nightclubs and showed less interest in traditional marriage and child rearing. A lean body type became fashionable and was enhanced by the lengthened hemlines and defined waists introduced by French couturier Jean Patou in 1929. This slender silhouette was supported by form-fitting foundation garments by manufacturers such as Berlei.

The Modern Woman became one of the most potent images of contemporary life, being celebrated in women’s magazines such as the ultra-stylish Home and the Australian Women’s Weekly, launched in 1933. While such magazines were congratulating her and promoting new consumer goods to the Modern Woman, at the same time she was criticised by conservative commentators. In 1937 photographer Max Dupain wrote: ‘There must be a great shattering of modern values if woman is to continue to perpetuate the race… In her shred of a dress and little helmet of a hat, her cropped hair, and stark bearing, the modern woman is a sort of a soldier… It is not her fault it is her doom.’

Australia tunes into the world

These radios comprise a selection of Australian designed and manufactured tabletop models from the 1930s at a time when this new method of communication became an integral part of every home. They reflect the rapid spread of the streamlined style to Australia from the United States, England and Europe, where industrial designers applied machine-age styling to everyday household appliances. The use of new synthetic plastics (Bakelite) and mass production helped to make radios affordable for ordinary people, even in the depths of the Depression, and radio transmission brought the world into every Australian home. As cheap alternatives to the expensive wooden console in the lounge room, these small, portable radios allowed individual family members to listen to serials, quizzes and popular music in other rooms such as the kitchen, bedroom and verandah, as well as in the workplace.

Radios of the 1930s are now appreciated as quintessential examples of Art Deco styling, and one of the first expressions of art meeting industry. These colourful and elegant radio sets were one of the first pieces of modern styling in the Australian home. They were also a symbol of modern technology and a new future.

A new generation of artists and designers

While modern art was a source of debate and controversy throughout the 1930s, modernism in architecture, interior design, industrial design and advertising became highly fashionable. In Melbourne a small group of designers was the first to pioneer modern design in Australia. Furniture designer Fred Ward first designed and made furniture for his home in Eaglemont, where he had established a studio workshop. It was admired by friends and he was encouraged to produce furniture for sale. In 1932 Ward opened a shop in Collins Street, Melbourne. There he offered his furniture, as well as linens and Scandinavian glass. The fabrics for curtains and upholstery were printed by Australian designer Michael O’Connell with bold designs that shocked some but were favoured by a new generation looking to create modern interiors.

More than in most periods, in the 1930s art, design and architecture were closely integrated with the changing realities of contemporary life. It was a time when the last vestiges of the conservative art establishment were swept away by a new generation of artists and designers who were to drive Australian art in the second half of the twentieth century.

Body culture

The terrible physical losses and psychological traumas of the First World War changed Australian society and prompted anxious concerns about the direction of the nation. For some this meant an inward-looking isolationism, a desire that Australian culture should develop independently and untouched by the ‘degenerate’ influences of Europe.

The search for rejuvenation frequently involved explorations of the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the human body. In the hands of artists, corporeal forms came to symbolise nationhood, most often expressed through references to the art of Classical Greece and mythological subjects. The evolution of a new Australian ‘type’ was also proposed in the 1930s – a white Australian drawn from British stock, but with an athletic and streamlined shape honed by time spent swimming and surfing on local beaches.

This art often has a distinctive quality to it, which in the light of history can sometimes make for disquieting viewing. With the terrible knowledge of how the Nazi Party in Germany subsequently used eugenics in its systematic slaughter of those with so-called ‘bad blood’, the Australian enthusiasm for ‘body culture’ can now seem problematic. Images of muscular nationalism soon lost their cache in Australia following the Second World War, tainted by undesirable fascistic overtones.

Sun and surf

The beach was a complex location in the Australian creative imagination. It was a democratic site in which the trappings of wealth and position were abandoned as people stripped down to their bathers. It was a place of hedonistic pleasures that offered sensuous engagement with sun and surf, and a primitive landscape where natural forces restored the bodies of those depleted by modern life. It was a playground for the tourist that was considered distinctively Australian. As war loomed again in the late 1930s, it was also a pseudo-militaristic zone in which the lifesaver was honed for ‘battle’ in the surf.

The lifesavers that helped protect the beach-going public were regularly praised as physical exemplars who could build the eugenic stock of the nation. As the Second World War approached, the connection of these trained lifesavers to military servicemen also became painfully apparent.

Male lifesavers were used by artists in promoting Australia to tourists: a poster commemorating the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 positioned the lifesaver as the quintessential representative of Australian manhood. Douglas Annand and Arthur Whitmore’s virile lifesaver proudly gestures towards the new bridge, his muscles as strong and protective as the steel girders that span the harbour.

Pastoral landscapes

Along with the beach, another national myth evolved around the Australian bush. Although most Australians lived in cities, in the years following the First World War the nation became increasingly informed by a mythology centred on the bush and the landscape. For those who considered the modern city a profoundly depleting force, the bush was a touchstone of traditional ‘values’. It was nostalgically conceived of as an idyllic natural realm whose soil, literally and metaphorically, sustained its people. Both the classical Pastoral ideal of a land in which only sheep and cattle roam, and the Georgic tradition, which celebrated the achievements of agriculture, became dominant themes in landscape art.

Pastoral landscapes were admired above all as representing the antithesis of ‘decadent’ modern life. As art critic and gallery director J. S. Macdonald wrote, such art would ‘point the way in which life should be lived in Australia, with the maximum of flocks and the minimum of factories’. With their emphasis on farming and pastoral industries, such works affirmed white landownership, with Indigenous people largely absent.

Indigenous art and culture

During the 1930s Aboriginal people were often pejoratively referred to as a ‘dying race’. The Australian Government continued to enforce a ‘divide and rule’ assimilationist policy. Determined by eugenics, this entailed removing Aboriginal people of mixed descent from their families and reserves, and absorbing them into the dominant society, with consequent loss of their own language and customary ritual practices. Increasingly during this period, Aboriginal people formed their own organisations and agitated for full citizenship rights.

This was also a decade that saw increasing awareness of, and interest in, Indigenous art. Albert Namatjira astonished Melbourne audiences at his first solo exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1938. Comprising forty-one watercolour paintings, all of his works sold within three days of the opening. The following year the Art Gallery of South Australia purchased one of Namatjira’s works. Indigenous art also inspired non-Indigenous artists, including Margaret Preston and Frances Derham who appropriated design elements in their works. The idea of ‘Aboriginalism’, in which settlers sought an Australian identity in the context of Britishness and the Empire, saw artists travelling to the outback to paint and sketch subjects they believed connected them to Indigenous history.

The expressive body: dance in Australia

If modern art encapsulated the ideals and conflicting forces of the early twentieth century, then modern dance embodied its restless vitality and the quest for a different kind of subjectivity and expression. To many, modern dance is the pivotal art form for a mid twentieth century concerned with plasticity, the expressive body and tensions between the individual and its collective formation.

The decade of the 1930s is framed by the 1928–29 tour of Anna Pavlova’s dance company and the three tours of the remnant Ballets Russes companies (1936–37,1938–39, 1939–40) that excited many aspiring modernist artists. These tours lay the seeds for subsequent ballet narratives in Australia, because the eruption of war in 1939 meant that Ballets Russes dancers, including Helene Kirsova and Edouard Borovansky, stayed in the country and established ballet companies. While trained in Russian dance technique, these artists had also been influenced by the aesthetics of change in European art and dance that included new bodily techniques, dynamic movement patterns and modern technologies. It was the individual dancers of modern dance, however, including Louise Lightfoot and Sonia Revid, who produced the expressive intensity of a more autonomous art of movement.

Dystopian cities

Australia was hit hard by the Great Depression. The worst year was 1932, when unemployment reached nearly thirty-two per cent, and by the following year almost a third of all unemployed men had been without work for three years. With wages cut and unemployment rising, many families were left struggling to survive and this poverty was most evident in run-down, inner-city areas. Two émigrés, Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner, were the first Australian artists to turn their attention to the plight of the urban poor and the disposed. Their powerful, expressive style was influential upon young artists, including Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker.

Economic hardship fostered bitterness and political unrest, and membership of radical groups on both the left and right increased. Boundaries between political agendas and art production became porous in this decade, and many artists believed, like Bergner, ‘that by painting we would change the world’. The complex enmeshment of the creative and political became a defining feature of the decade, and art in Australia became increasingly political, with the political realm involving itself with art.

By the end of the decade the worsening political situation overseas and a sense that another world war was inevitable contributed to a growing sense of unease. Many artists expressed this anxiety and foreboding in their works.