*Grace Cossington Smith, now dead for thirty-eight years, still haunts Australian art history as one of the foremost Modernist painters. Comprising the Contemporary Group along with Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Roy de Maistre and others, Cossington Smith with her vibrant compositions ushered a version of international Modernism into the conservative, pastoral landscape of the Australian art world. Reimagined and reanimated, Cossington Smith in her spectral form is intuited here in conversation.
- The last major work you made was Still Life with White Cup and Saucer in 1971, 42 years ago. Now, in a different stage of your artistic career, could you describe what has occupied you since then?
- Yes, it is odd how people perceive you in terms of ‘major works’. I say this because I stopped painting just as I was beginning to become recognised with my first retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia—it seemed to have marked a definitive end.
Well I continued to sketch still lives, interiors, what was immediately around me—I only stopped when I had retreated so far inside myself that I could no longer see, or draw.
And that’s when I really knew it was ending—I moved into a nursing home.
So I guess I have just been ever rehearsing an ending, while accumulating more ‘success’ than I ever had, with retrospectives and touring exhibitions and just now the Sydney Moderns show at the AGNSW and the Australia show in London. Drifting and being passed around, immanently working in this meantime.
I have come to now perceive and reflect upon myself as an object, in a kind of an ongoing still life, something to be propped up. To what end I am not sure. In regard to my earlier comment, it is rather not so much as I have retreated into myself, or as I had hoped, into my work, but rather completely transformed, and quite miraculously into an object.
- In terms of this objectification, how did you position yourself while you were still painting and what does it mean to you now to have in some ways introduced Modernism to Australia? I am thinking of your painting The Sock Knitter (1915), and its epithet as ‘arguably Australia’s first Post-Impressionist painting’ as well as The Bridge in-curve (1930) with its celebration of a city in the midst of modernisation.
- Well, I have never liked to dwell on myself, but what I will say is that I have come to think of my paintings as resistance to ‘objectification’, and that is not to say that they are not objects, it’s just that that was my approach. I adopted a European style because it resonated with me, and it didn’t move and I didn’t shift. And, although it is so ingrained into the way we think about Australian art, it wasn’t as though ‘Post-Impressionism’ was a hemline to be taken up or down—it is more complicated and discursive than that. It was the way I was taught, it was the others around me, before and after, however few—and it was different to ‘Modernism’, whatever we imagined that to be. The wave was already swelling and it was something to atomise into.
I think that one also has to notice and remember the distance. Europe was then a lot further away, and reduced in a sense—we travelled by ship and we returned, and then were whispered to through letters, memories and fashion magazines. In this disembodied time, though, I must say I have enjoyed acquainting myself more thoroughly with High European Modernism, to imagine it more clearly and comprehensibly than I ever could or wanted to.
- I am interested in this idea of imagination, imagining Modernism. Do you think it is something that is a symptom of distance? And, by extension, something that is specifically Australian?
- Well I couldn’t claim to speak for everyone, nor would I want to, but it was certainly something that occupied me, imagining. I just feel as though, because we are here, these whispers, the Cézanne book that I bought—we imagine their gaps, the lapse that occurs when you realise, I guess the contingency of history. And I think perhaps this is telling of a kind of distance—this necessary process of expanding moments, filling them out. I don’t mean this in a conscious way, but rather coming to describe an underlying condition, of being displaced, having to cope with and make up for the ‘not-here’ and the ‘not-now’. Another kind of meantime, although whether it is uniquely Australian or not I am not sure, but I feel as though it is present.
But then on the other hand, there is this kind of intense proximity that you feel, I felt, in a kind of making it yours, in reifying that distance, and drawing it close. My niece, pumpkin leaves, my wardrobes, enacting this gap.
- How then did this materialise itself in the actual process of your painting? It perhaps seems as though what you speak of as proximity and distance correlates to centre and periphery?
- I often come to think of it in terms of a mirror, whether malleable or shattered I can’t decide. But nevertheless it is the other, the imagined—whether it was, for me, the Contemporary Group painters, the colour-poems of Beatrice Irwin, my memories of Europe, Ethel Anderson’s ‘fourth dimensional emotion’, my lessons—they radiate this light, giving you the material with which to compose yourself, and to be composed—your affirming image in the mirror. Of course, I was in some way conscious of this at the time of my painting, particularly earlier on—but more and more I realise that this mirror isn’t cohesive, or unified in one plane: it’s trips to the city, the pictures that someone—Norah Simpson, Ronald Wakelin, Signor—posted on the studio wall, letters from ‘home’. And sometimes I think I mean spectres, or auditors, or I wonder whether the voice was really my own.
I am not sure if this makes any sense, but I guess trying to find a kind of clarity, well, it is always a struggle, and I mean I don’t, can’t, remember everything.
- When you say that you were aware of this, what do you mean? How did you become aware?
- I don’t think aware is the right word, it really was underlying, or conditioning. I guess maybe awareness comes from this possibility of stepping outside of yourself, maybe if only I was more aware, I don’t really know. Anyway, what I was going to say is that the impulse that usually comes from this is recreation, imitation—well this is how it is usually perceived, and more and more, received—you know the capacity for light to be reproduced. But again it is not that simple. People often say my paintings have this clarity, this light, this grace, as if they have become windows onto something, protective of their own design. Which is something that I value in one sense, but this I find easy. I guess it goes to show that the thickness of the paint won’t have any bearing on whether people see through your paintings or not.
- When you say easy, what exactly do you mean?
- Well, I guess I mean that, and here it is hard to be specific because it isn’t just curators or institutions, I think it is broader than this—people fail to see difference, or the conditions of their difference, this gap. They see my paintings as illustrative of a European style, or that’s the reference, and then deliberate over the lag, talk about supplementaries. Which is fine, maybe it has always been this way, and I don’t mean to focus this just on me. It’s just that in thinking back it was a series of introductions, and now I feel more and more a series of closures—I guess it is just hard getting used to the splitting and sweeping of time.
- Earlier you mentioned the Australia show at the Royal Academy in London. How does it feel to have your work shown in Europe? I imagine it would be significant for you and equally strange—this being one of the few times if not the first.
- I think I would have been very excited if I were younger again, but it is hard to get excited when you are dead, and never before have I felt the closure getting tighter, the air getting thicker. Recently I have found it more interesting that one of my paintings was found in Texas, to then be sold back to Australia. Although at least it was the The Bridge in Building, and not The Bridge in-curve, you know it’s always interesting how desire gets interpreted.
- Well, considering that you are still operating in the now, do you think things have changed for the contemporary Australian artist?
- This I feel is a very complex question, but I guess it relates to your earlier question about the centre and the periphery that I forgot to answer—what was it, distance and proximity?
Of course things have changed. What I find interesting in referring back to the Australia show is that this idea of the centre and periphery no longer exists, or not in such a fixed way—we are all apparently global, connected, or at least implicated in it. But you know, I think of the colour plates that we looked at, the sparse artist statements, and because now we can see the wall the painting was hung on, we can see the one image and the text of the press release, does this really collapse the distance between the here and the there, the dominance and the difference?
Maybe it has to do with belonging, that now one feels, or should feel that what they see belongs to them in some way, you can put your body into that gallery, you can, could be in New York, or now Shanghai—it’s not that far away. In some sense perhaps this imagination has already been made concrete, this distance that in retrospect I found productive has been concealed within these surfaces, and the speed in which they arrive.
- So you see this condition as being unproductive, to feel and belong to the idea of the global, whatever that comes to mean?
- No, not at all. I just think that perhaps people, or to be specific artists, but perhaps that’s not specific enough, forget, I guess. They forget that the distance is real, and they can forget a kind of specificity that in itself can be productive. But then it isn’t as simple as trying to find our own time, our own position amongst the plural, our own now. And it isn’t just a matter of images, either.
I think of my colleague Margaret Preston, and her position within this context and how recently her paintings were shown at Documenta 13, negotiating this periphery. I mean she tried to emancipate Australian art, and a part of this was through encouraging the then emerging Modernist tradition, belonging to it, but also trying to find something different, something Australian, however problematic that seems now.
I guess then she thought she was a part of it, and I guess now she is remembered for being symbolic of this, descriptive of this desire of being in it, the centre, or this desire to set the conditions for the ‘now’, the ‘avant-garde’. But I mean as soon as you say the ‘avant-garde’ I just see tapering—tapering to ‘progress’.
You know people speak of this global world as being liquid, that in place of specific, fixed locations, institutions, practices, collectives, we have fluid networks, enveloping these structures. And then I also think of the expanse of liquid, that measure of distance and resistance on which my ship skimmed, when I first went to England. It’s almost as if we are swimming, drowning in between those two seas, getting and forgetting a sense of their weight, and their mass.
Aodhan Madden is an artist and writer.
In time: emotional professionalism