Burnside, South Australia, Australia 1891 – Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 1951
Paris, Île-de-France, Ville de Paris department, France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas Support: canvas
When Dorrit Black returned to Australia from London and France in late 1929, fresh from her studies at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art and André Lhote’s Académie Montparnasse, she was referred to as ‘a modern of moderns’ in Adelaide’s The Register News-Pictorial of 5 September 1929. She became a passionate evangelical to the modernist cause and established the Modern Art Centre in Sydney, which flourished from 1930 for three short but highly influential years. Along with her friend Grace Crowley, she was instrumental in the development of early Cubism in Australia. Black also left her mark in Europe and was revered by the English modernist master Claude Flight, who hung her work alongside his as exemplars to his students at the highly influential Grosvenor School.
The National Gallery of Australia has long held an excellent collection of Black’s linocuts but, until recently, had only a modest collection of her oils, mostly from her later years when she was dutifully caring for her mother in Adelaide. In November 2014, the Gallery significantly augmented its collection of paintings by Black with the acquisition of three works, two of which are rare early examples from her sojourns in Paris and Mirmande studying under Lhote. Nude was painted when she first attended Lhote’s school in 1928, having crossed the English Channel to France to acquire ‘a definite understanding of the aims and methods of the modern movement and, in particular—of the Cubists’, as she wrote in her account of her studies there. She was compelled to undo all of her early art school training, which had been concerned with the effect of light on form, to embrace a new language of abstraction. She wrote, ‘Lhote comes in one day in the week to pose the model and one day to criticise or “correct” … He judges the work from the standards of rhythm, balance, proportion and life, and applies these standards to its three properties—form, tone and colour’.
In addition, the Gallery acquired an important French provincial landscape by Black, which has now been identified, through careful research, as Provençale farmhouse (exhibited in her first solo show after returning to Australia at Macquarie Galleries, 10–20 September 1930). In 1928, Black joined her friends Grace Crowley and Anne Dangar at Lhote’s famed summer school in the hilltop village of Mirmande in the Rhône Valley. While there, she sent a postcard to her family in which she wrote, ‘I’m continuing to enjoy my work & have finished 5 things that I intend to keep. Not very much for 4½weeks perhaps but when you consider that I only kept 3 things out of 6 mths in Paris … it shows progress’. Her time at Mirmande had a significant and lasting effect on her enthusiasm for her art and her practice, which is clear in a letter to John Young at Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in mid February the following year: ‘since the beginning of Lhote’s summer class at Mirmande I have been enjoying painting again tremendously, more, I think, than I have ever done before. And I have a pretty clear idea now of the direction in which I want to aim’. Provençale farmhouse is one of only a handful of works documenting this precious period in her career. It is also a very fine example of her painting practice at the time, which would influence so many other modernists after her return to Australia, making the work an incredibly important addition to our collection of modernist paintings.
At the end of 1933, having carved out an indelible place among the Sydney modernists, Black returned to Adelaide to tend to her widowed mother, who was suffering from dementia. She built a house and studio at Magill in 1939, where she painted many of her South Australian landscapes, including views of the Fleurieu Peninsula such as the Gallery’s recently acquired Coastal trees c 1948. It is among her last works. On 12 September 1951, while driving her fashionable and thoroughly modern blue Fiat convertible in Norwood, she had a car accident, sustaining serious injuries to which she succumbed the day after. Fellow artist Ivor Francis declared in his obituary for his friend, that she was ‘Adelaide’s first and, perhaps, least understood “modern” artist’.
Lara Nicholls, Assistant Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 81, Autumn 2015