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Forging Diplomacy: “Art of Australia 1788-1941” Exhibition

Dr. Louise Ryan

This year not only marks the eightieth anniversary of Curtin’s famous “Australia looks to America” speech that signalled a new phase in Australia/US relations, but of another important but little-known event that contributed to the ongoing alliance building process – the Washington opening on the 1st October 1941 of the “Art of Australia 1788-1941” exhibition (AoAE).

Prior International Exchange Art Exhibitions

To appreciate the importance of the AoAE in promoting Australian culture internationally and forming alliances as a result of WWII, it is necessary to briefly consider the cultural landscape in Australia in the 1930s. Prior to the AoAE, there had been contact between the influential philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) and a range of Australian public institutions resulting in joint enterprises in Australia and other dominions. There were two significant earlier exhibitions; the 1937 “Exhibition of Contemporary Canadian Painting” and the “Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art” in 1939.

In particular, the 1939 exhibition had enormous impact on the Australian cultural scene as it displayed the work of 59 painters and nine sculptors, many of them major figures of late nineteenth and twentieth century art. This exhibition was instigated by Australian newspaper magnate, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) trustee and enthusiastic collector, Keith Murdoch. While Murdoch preferred “understandable art”, he expressed the hope that the exhibition might encourage local artists to explore and experiment, stating in the exhibition catalogue that “ Australia we have many artists of fine taste and sincerity whose vision will be widened by this experience” (Christian and Phillips, 2006, pp.1-6). Murdoch told the Herald board, “Gallipoli has given us one kind of maturity. This exhibition will give us another”.

Attendance records were broken when thousands of ordinary people, students and writers viewed the showings. In total, a record-breaking 70,000 people in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, attended the exhibition, an amazing figure considering Australia’s total population in 1939 was only 7 million. By contrast, leading representatives of the local art establishment responded with hostility to the exhibition, passionately denouncing the show in an effort to undermine its success. For example, J.S. MacDonald, then director of the NGV, declared that the majority of works in the exhibition was “putrid meat” and the “product of degenerates and perverts”. When 48,000 people attended the Melbourne show MacDonald derided modern art as “a mob invasion” whose popularity was the product of “a complete disdain of training and discipline, and from a hatred of true form.” One Melbourne writer warned audiences “not to be unduly alarmed” by the paintings on display and called for calm (Christian and Phillips, 2006, pp. 5, 11).

The equally conservative trustees of the AGNSW in Sydney refused to make gallery space available to display the exhibition, so the leading city department store David Jones provided its upper floor. The display opened on 20th November, 1939 and attracted over 6,000 people in the first seven days, with a total of 15,000 attending during the following weeks. In addition, although the AGNSW agreed to take the exhibition paintings for five months when the display ended, the trustees claimed that the works could not be displayed due to a shortage of exhibition space, despite the fact that the lower courts of the gallery were only displaying quite large classical reproductions or copies. Of an even more scandalous nature, a large section of the gallery was being used by the trustees to exhibit their own “mediocre paintings”, occupying double the area needed to show the modernist works (Christian and Phillips, 2006, pp.12-16).

Finally, when the return of the works to their original owners was delayed until 1946 due to the war, galleries had the option to buy two-thirds of the works on display at bargain prices. This included works by Picasso, Chagall, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat and Bonnard. Instead of taking up this exceptional offer, the AGNSW instead purchased a handful of mostly “overpriced and inferior works by now forgotten British painters”. The British media declared, not without justification, that the AGNSW trustees were “cashed-up philistine colonials hoodwinked into buying mediocre European works at inflated prices” (Christian and Phillips, 2006, pp.20-21).

Although this event can be seen as a cultural turning point for Australia in the 1930s, it is a pertinent example of the aesthetic ignorance and parochial narrow-mindedness of those individuals and institutions dominating the local Australian art scene. These exhibitions were immensely popular with the public, yet the response from significant artworld figures through the press was unrelenting and undermined subsequent exhibitions of Contemporary European artworks in Australia. By March 1941 for example, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) drew attention to the great interest shown by the Australian public in the works of its own artists. The example used to illustrate this point in the SMH was the Elioth Gruner exhibition at the AGNSW in March 1941 that attracted 53,000 people over seven weeks. This local success was contrasted euphemistically with a lack of public interest in a “continental exhibition” previously held at the gallery that was not considered a successful venture. Museum records and media articles confirm this judgment (EFC1941, Art Gallery of New South Wales Research Library and Archive, SMH 3rd July 1941).

Public Endorsement of the 1941 Exhibition and Significant Relationships

Considering this contentious background, the AoAE was at the time a unique event for Australian national culture. It was the first instance that this federation of six former British colonies’ visual culture had been showcased internationally to the US public. This traveling display, sponsored by the Australian and US governments under the auspices of the CCNY, was shown throughout the US and Canada from 1941 to 1943. The exhibition comprised 143 works including Aboriginal drawings, oil paintings, watercolours and sculptures drawn from both public and private sources. It toured to 29 galleries throughout these two countries, the most prominent venues in the US being the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MMA) and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (NGAW).

Revealing of the US’ attitude towards Canada (a British dominion) was the decision to split the works on display, with US interests taking precedence over their Canadian counterpart. The US Committee of Selection choose 86 works (which MoMA considered an “ideal” number) from the 143 available, with 59 “academic works...thrown out”, because the panel liked the early and modern works but were “apathetic regarding some of the great reputations in the Commonwealth.” The Committee assured the Australian delegates that this decision was to “save you and other members of the committee from embarrassment” by including the “dull British art” only on the Canadian tour (EFC1941, AGNSW, Sizer, 1st July 1941).

Documentary evidence suggests that the AoAE was a great success, attracting large crowds especially in the US, with nine works recorded as purchased by US institutions or public agencies. Also included in the tour were films about the Australian continent (that were shown at US and Canadian openings and at the host galleries) which proved popular with museum audiences.

The US gallery touring circuit also championed the success of this cultural display of Australian artifacts. The director of circulating exhibitions from New York’s prestigious MoMA wrote, “...let me assure you that the Australian exhibition is one of the most popular shows we have ever seen on tour. It is now scheduled in fifteen cities in this country, and at least fifteen more have requested dates on the schedule before it returns to you” (letter from Elodie Courter, MoMA to Will Ashton, 24th June 1942, EFC1941, AGNSW). Similar views were expressed by the Director of the Los Angeles County Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art.

The relationship between the two gallery directors responsible for organizing and overseeing the exhibition, Theodore Sizer from the US and Will Ashton from Australia, is crucial in understanding how US /Australian relations were promoted via the AoAE. Theodore Sizer was the person most responsible for guiding and promoting Australian personalities involved in the organization and implementation of the exhibition. This prominent committee advisor selected members whom he believed shared similar views to his own and who, in turn, would influence cultural activities in their own countries. Sizer’s advocacy included involvement in matters related directly to the AoAE and indirectly in alternative activities and agendas for which he had organizational responsibility. This included relationships with the Australian Minister in Washington R. G. Casey (ostensibly Australia’s first Ambassador to the US) and his wife Maie. The role of Australian Government representatives in the organisation and structure of the exhibition was of importance and these key players also had US interests as a high priority. In this instance, Casey would have been directed by the Australian Government to ensure that both Australian and US needs were met in any cultural exchange projects.

The Caseys’ high level of involvement in the AoAE opening ceremonies at the US galleries reinforced a strong desire for US/Australian alliance building. This civic dimension of the AoAE can be regarded as a measure of the success of the project in the eyes of the organisers, reflected in the many favourable reviews in numerous newspaper and magazine articles (EFC1941, AGNSW). The importance of these exhibition openings lies in their function as displays of power and influence and their subsequent impact on different sectors of society. These documented, public demonstrations constitute a set of standards which reinforce community values and norms. The expectation that these philosophies, cultural norms and behaviours would in turn be disseminated and distributed overseas in countries such as Australia was part of the undisclosed agenda of the AoAE.

Promoting a US “National Art Style” to Establish a Shared National Identity

Theodore Sizer promoted the interests of the US in terms of their military agenda and in the process, assisted in the spreading of a particular type of “national art style” in the US and to Australia. The exhibition catalogue also includes a statement promoting this concept. In the forward, Casey blames the “tenuous conservatism” of the Australian artistic scene for producing “an artistic idiom of her own” that is tied to Britain because of its youth as a nation”. Casey praises US involvement in Australian culture and urges that for the “art of a nation to flourish, her painters must have protection and encouragement. This the US has for some time appreciated and has now laid the basis for a proud national art” (preface). This opening statement by Casey was widely acclaimed in both the US and Australian press, with several articles discussing this introduction in glowing terms. From September 1941−March 1942 more than a dozen papers throughout US, Canada and Australia quoted Casey’s foreword from the catalogue when writing about the exhibition (EFC1941, AGNSW).

Theodore Sizer’s article, “The Unknown Art of Australia” in Art News October 1941, is noteworthy as it further demonstrates the pivotal role that Sizer played in the organisation and implementation of the exhibition and reinforces this interest in promoting a shared national identity between the US and Australia. He draws numerous comparisons of “parallelism ... almost decade by decade”, between the two countries in terms of developments in general history, political developments and progress in the arts. For example, the writer compares the similarities in the treatment of indigenous populations of both Australia and North America. This essay by Sizer was considered significant in cultural circles in the US as numerous references are made to this article. The Yale Gallery Director’s opinion also appears to be promoted in the US and Australian press with several articles during September and October 1941 discussing his views (EFC1941, AGNSW).

Archival Correspondence on the Exhibitions’ Impact on Military Alliances

Many of the opinions found in the archival correspondence illustrate practices and agendas aimed at extending the influence of US culture and promoting diplomatic and cultural relations between Australia and the US by diminishing the influences of Britain. Once again, the driving force for this endeavour was Theodore Sizer.

The importance of cultural events such as the AoAE in relation to WWII propaganda was vital for the promotion of US interests in the Pacific. In his letter to Deputy President John Reed of The Contemporary Art Society, Melbourne (23rd Febrary 1942), Sizer’s huge commitment to “the job” of making sure certain US concerns (both politically and culturally) were met is again undeniable. Here, Sizer is attempting to establish relationships with players in the Australian cultural scene to advance US war efforts. He writes that:

the exhibition has been a great success, not only due to the excellent quality and subject matter of the material, but also to the fact that the war has brought us very near together. The opening at the National Gallery in Washington last October gave the exhibition an official governmental pat on the back, as the institution has been most particular as to what it has exhibited... (EFC1941, AGNSW).

To confirm the prevalence of this desire to promote Australian-US relations, six further letters and an LA newsletter are particularly illuminating. In a letter on the 29th October 1941 to George Harold Edgell, director of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Sizer states that:

... quite apart from the fact that this exhibition will stand firmly on its legs aesthetically, it seems to me that it is eminently fitting and proper to do what we can to tighten our cultural as well as our military bonds with far flung portions of the British Empire. This Australian Exhibition is a timely affair ... (EFC1941, AGNSW).

On the 31st July 1942 a letter is sent from Roland J. McKinney, director, Los Angeles County Museum of History, to “Ted” (Sizer) discussing the exhibition. McKinney states that they had decided to present the exhibition in 1942 instead of 1943, “in view of the Pacific situation and the strategic position Australia holds in the Pacific war theatre... [believing that the exhibition] would demonstrate every phase of Australian life”. In addition, on the 19th November 1941 in a letter to Sir Richard Boyer, honorary director of the American division of the Department of Information in Australia, Sizer maintains that he believed “...this exhibition...has the great advantage of being not only aesthetic but patriotic and timely” (EFC1941, AGNSW).

The story of the AoAE is an overlooked example of cultural and aesthetic material being used to educate sections of the North American public about aspects of Australian culture in order to form values and foster empathetic attitudes of a common cause, history, and commitment within the context of WWII. Museums themselves and their exhibited displays can be seen in this instance, and paradigmatically in the exhibitions that were to follow, as significant arenas in educating group sensibilities and forming, even steering, public values.

The written records indicate that concerted attempts were made by certain areas of US society to influence the direction and role of public perceptions and standards through a variety of avenues. The agents included government and private enterprises, public institutions and prominent individuals, the media, and the arts. In terms of the bigger cultural picture, the numerous examples cited reveal that US practices were prolific in Australia in the 1940s. These social and ideological influences had a subtle and pervasive impact on the agendas of the AoAE, especially in relation to the use of this significant cultural event as a tool of propaganda to advance the Australian and US government’s mutual desire for promotion of a shared national identity.


Louise Ryan (Ph.D.) is Adjunct Fellow/Research Associate/Associate Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Institute Associate at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.



Christian, J., & Phillips, & R. Retrieved 26th march, 2007, from htpp:// EFC1941, Art Gallery of New South Wales Research Library and Archive, Sydney, Australia.


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