It’s easy to put on rose-tinted glasses and think that the world used to be an easier, better place in bygone eras. Pick your decade and add a touch of sepia and a few cherry-picked memorable events, and it can all seem much more glamorous, if not romantic.
Wandering round the NGV Australia’s exhibition of life in 1930s Australia – Brave New World, named after Aldous Huxley’s classic futuristic dystopian novel – I was struck by how many of the themes and concerns of that era still preoccupy us today – from consumerism, traffic congestion and the loss of individuality in an increasingly fast-paced and mechanised world to the position of women in society.
The exhibition starts with paintings and photos documenting the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The painting by Grace Cossington-Smith (a nice overlap for me as I saw some of her work recently at an exhibition entitled O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: making modernism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales) of the bridge during construction has an optimistic feel; there’s colour, movement and expansive skies. It’s as if the bridge – the largest single-arch bridge in the world when it was completed in 1932 – heralds the dawn of a new era. Horizons were expanding and skyscrapers going up – Melbourne’s tallest building at the time, the Manchester Unity building, was built in 1932.
Speed, efficiency and expanding road and rail networks gave artists working in new media and styles a rich source of imagery. Max Dupain’s 1938 photo of Rush Hour in Kings Cross hints at the stresses of modern life, although, to my contemporary eye, the moody black and white finish and all those vintage cars feels more 42nd Street than Darlinghurst Road. It’s sepia-tinted nostalgia at play again.
A non-stop daily train from Melbourne to Albury – the Spirit of Progress – averaging 70 mph first ran in 1937 and featured an ‘ultra modern’ kitchen meaning passengers could choose a 3-course dinner for six shillings. The menu is wonderfully dated and includes delights such as consommé or clam chowder, boiled leg of mutton or boiled flathead with parsley sauce and, for dessert, steamed Victoria pudding or compote of peaches and custard.
The position of women in society was changing as it became acceptable for women to live alone, work and even frequent nightclubs! At the same time, a leaner body type became fashionable with defined waists and more revealing clothing. To help women achieve a more sculpted figure, clothing companies such as Berlei used a Figure Type Indicator, a measure that made sure women wore suitable foundation garments to correct their ‘figure faults’. An amusing ad by Berlei – It isn’t Done – that ran in cinemas in 1930, plays on a screen. You can view it here: https://aso.gov.au/titles/ads/berlei-it-isnt-done/clip2/. Women’s rights still had a long way to go.
One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is a whole room of radios from those that were set into pieces of furniture to portable Bakelite models and others with fancy Art Deco grilles. How exciting it must have been when radios first brought the outside world live into the home! A soundtrack playing in the background includes Fred Astaire favourites such as Night and Day and Cheek to Cheek.
A single black negligée on display hints at glamour and the Hollywood femme fatale – and, interestingly, an advert for a white goods blends glamour, romance and elegance with a photo of a fridge flanked by a couple in evening wear. Although it was still not acceptable for middle-class women to light up a cigarette in public in the 20s, by the 30s smoking was portrayed as being sophisticated. There’s a wall of paintings of women of the era, some of them smoking or looking suitably louche or rebellious.
Reactionaries like the photographer Max Dupain didn’t like to see women emerge from being just wives and mothers and begrudged them their new-found freedoms: “there must be a great shattering of modern values if woman is to perpetuate the race… In her shred of a dress and a little helmet of a hat, her cropped hair, and stark bearing, the modern woman is a sort of solider… It is not her fault it is her doom.”
Contrast his views with those of Jean Broome-Norton, a sculptor whose Hippolyta and the Amazons defeating Theseus depicts the Queen of the Amazons with a proud and strong physique complete with conical breasts – Madonna didn’t get there first. Worryingly, between the war years, there was a move away by some sections of society from what was perceived as the corrosive influence of Europe and a tendency to look inwards. The human body and physical form and prowess expressed through references to Classical Greece and mythology became synonymous with nationhood. A new Australian ‘type’ became desirable, a white Australian hailing from British stock, but one that was muscular and athletic from swimming and surfing. With the benefit of hindsight and historical knowledge, this cult of the body is uncomfortably close to the Nazi Party’s Aryan ideal and racial cleansing.
As war loomed in the 1930s, lifesavers became linked with military service as they were trained for ‘battle’ in the surf and male lifesavers became poster boys – literally– for ads marketing Australia to tourists. It was all about manhood, military service, muscles and virility.Of course, no exhibition of this inter-war period would be complete without reference to the Great Depression. In contrast to the negligees, glamorous gowns, airbrushed posters, radios, fridges, cars and speedy trains with restaurant cars, there was huge unemployment (levels reached nearly 32 per cent in 1932) and poverty. A series of photos and black and white grainy film depict life in the slums in the cities, while works by artists such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker express anxiety and existentialism.
One of the last photos in the show is by Max Dupain and it reflects concerns at the time that machines and mechanisation were destroying the body, perhaps even humanity. Brave New World (1938) shows a woman trapped by technology. Naming the piece after a book that had been banned by the Australian Customs Department, with existing copies rounded up and burnt, was provocative. One wonders how Dupain reacted (he lived till he was 81 in 1992) to the first man in space, women’s liberation and the pill. Not to mention how he would fare in today’s world where much of life is actioned by the swipe of a finger across a screen. Brave New World is on at the NVG until 15th October, 2017.