Archive for April, 2013

The Paris of the 1920s-1930s, was ablaze with bright lights and the sound of jazz Paris. A city of the artistic avant-garde where movements such as Cubism, Surrealism and Dada had taken hold, attracting a host of international artists, writers and performers. In the early years of the 20th century, Australian artists living in Europe, were captivated by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. One such artist was John Wardell Power (1881-1943).

Situated in the bohemian district on Montparnasse, Power found inspiration in the work of Picasso, Braque and the Cubist artists, and developed his own ideas on picture composition based on geometry. A cosmopolitan modernist steeped in the Parisian avant-garde, Power was interested in the relationship between colour and music and also drew inspiration from the stage, screen and popular entertainment. For example, Power’s ‘Danseurs à l’accordéon (Dancers with accordion), 1929’.


‘ Art is the mythical expression (or statement) of feeling. Plastic art is the rhythmical expression of a plastic experience. No rhythm no art. No feeling no art’ – John Wardell Power (1881-1943).

Hanging in a prominent position near the entry to the Schaeffer Fine Arts Library at the University of Sydney, this artwork features a pair of entangled dancing cowboy puppets in ten gallon hats and tiny boots, with cubist panels of accordion keys against a Spanish mission set. Although it has a strong highly formalised geometric structure, the interwoven curved lines created by the two central figures evoke a sense of rhythm and movement. Painted in the cubist style, this artwork combines abstract and surrealist elements, evoking the modernity of the 1920s. In a similar vein to Picasso’s American manager in cowboy boots design for the Ballet Russes ‘Parade’ (1917), this work displays an ironic and playful approach to the Parisian avant-garde’s flirtation with American popular culture and the cowboy myth. It is an artwork which challenges our ideas about art, popular cultures and modes of cultural consumption, their role in a postmodern society, and the established practices of art-making.

The current exhibition showing at the University Art Gallery, ‘Atelier Paris: The Power Studio’, celebrates the 50th anniversary of J.W. Power’s bequest to the University of Sydney which enabled the establishment of the first international residency for Australian artists in Paris. However, Power’s image as a generous benefactor, travelling émigré and expatriot artist has obscured his own artistic achievements as one of the most important post-cubist Australian artists and participant in the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century.

After leaving Sydney in 1906 as a young medical graduate he undertook further studies in London, later serving in World War 1 before renouncing his profession at the age of thirty-eight to study art in Paris. During the interwar years 1920s-1930s, Power moved freely between London, Paris and Brussels in, immersing himself in contemporary and international avant-garde movement. The career of an artist like Power, who left Australia and settled abroad to pursue an artistic career, has left him estranged from nationalist art historical narratives. Works such as ‘Danseurs à l’accordéon’ in the University of Sydney’s collection are an important illustration of the intercultural exchange between Sydney and Paris and France and Australia which took place in the early part of the 20th Century. They provide proof the plurality of global manifestations of modernism, and force the viewer to broaden their cultural perspective of Australian modernism beyond the confines of the nation state.

By Stephanie Volkens

Bouvet, V & Durozoi, G. 2010, Paris between the Wars: Arts, Style and Glamour in the Crazy Years, Thames and Hudson, London
Carroll, M. 2011, The Ballet Russes in Australia and Beyond, Wakefield Press, South Australia
Donaldson, A.D. & Stephen, A. J.W. 2012, Power Abstraction-Creation Paris 1939, University Art Gallery, Sydney
Howell, C. 2010 ‘Changing Perspectives on Modernism in Australia: Cubism and Australian Art’, Modernism/modernity, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp. 925-933.
Stephen, A. 2013, ‘Atelier Paris: the Power Studio’, MUSE, Issue 4, March 2013, pp. 6-8


Read Full Post »