DORRIT BLACK: Modernism and Cubism in a Pack

The Bridge, 1930, Sydney, Australia, Dorrit Black - photo by Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Dorrit Black (Dorothy Foster Black) 1891-1951

Dorothy was born just 2 days before Christmas in 1891, in Burnside, which is a suburb of Adelaide, Australia. Her father was an engineer and architect, her mother an amateur artist.

Dorrit Black – photo by
University of South Australia | Wikipedia

Dorrit was just 10 years old when the six British colonies in Australia united to form the “new” nation of Australia, an important part of the British Empire. She lived through two world wars and times were a-changing. She embraced the new concepts, travelled to Europe and back, bringing fresh ideas to Australia. Generous, well-informed and determined, she never received the praise she deserved during her lifetime – but she has left us with some beautiful and interesting art – as well as having inspired other artists.

Despite considerable prejudice against her, she was determined not only to produce her own works but also to help other people in Australia enjoy the Modernistic and Cubist styles which were becoming so fashionable in Europe. She helped to pioneer modern art in Australia and was an inspirational teacher as well. Yet her work was neglected during her lifetime, although people are taking more interest now.

Dorrit’s artistic training

She went to the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts around 1909, where she concentrated on watercolors. When she was 24 she went to Sydney to study painting in oils at the Julian Ashton Art School.

The eruption, 1927 – 1929, Dorrit Black – photo by Australian Prints + Printmaking

In 1927, Dorrit travelled to Europe. Here, under Claude Flight, she mastered lino-cut printing in her studies at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. The following year she moved across to Paris where she studied at André Lhote’s Academy. She also learned from Albert Gleizes in 1929. In Europe, she was exposed to proponents of Modernistic and Cubist art.

In fact, when she returned to Australia, she brought back these Avant-garde ideas and techniques about art. In 1930, she held an exhibition in Sydney at Macquarie Galleries. This was her first one-woman exhibitions – there were to be 5 more. In late 1933, Dorrit returned to her hometown of Adelaide.

Modern art defined

The time scale defined by the term modern art extends from about the 1860s to the 1970s. It was a time of experimentation, discarding “out-of-date” ideas and finding new ways of expression and new ways in using materials – abstract art made up a large share of this new way of presenting art – exciting, innovative and sometimes beyond one’s comprehension!

A brief word about Cubism

Provençale farmhouse (The pink house), 1928, Dorrit Black – photo by National Gallery of Australia

Cubism was an Avant-garde style or art which changed European art and sculpture. It was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and also influenced by Paul Cezanne’s later work. The idea is to represent the subject in a way that you wouldn’t see as realistic but which shows several facets of their being all at the same time – known as “multiple perspectives”. There was also a simplification of geometric shapes and some linking of modern life with mechanics.

The effects were far-reaching, and Dorrit introduced these modern ideas to Australia.

The Modern Art Centre, Margaret Street, Sydney

Dorrit set up the Modern Art Centre to enable others to work in the modern style. She was one of the first women to establish an art gallery. The centre became a focus for Australian modernism, holding small exhibitions by modernistic artists.

Dorrit’s works

Elizabeth Street, Sydney, 1939, Dorrit Black – photo by Art Gallery of New South Wales

During the 1930s, Dorrit produced most of her linocuts. Later she painted more watercolours and finally returned to oil painting. Her subjects were largely local landscapes – one of her most famous being the partly constructed famous Sidney harbour bridge. She also painted still lifes and she painted portraits. Indeed, she was a finalist in the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1931.

In the late 1930s, she returned to live in Adelaide with her mother. Here, the local hills and coast were sources of inspiration for her work.

She faced many difficulties in her life and wasn’t really given the esteem she deserved during her lifetime. Many many people didn’t understand her work and she had to fight against prejudice. But there is no pleasing some people! For some, her work was too advanced yet for others, not modern enough. But the better-educated artists in Adeliade came to respect and admire her work.

The wool quilt makers, 1940 or 1941, Dorrit Black – photo by National Gallery of Australia

Her skills were wide-ranging. Perhaps, she was best known for her pioneering printing. She also produced some very fine watercolours, oils and was a skilled draughtswoman as well. She also produced some interesting works showing men and women at work – mostly in the 1940s.

She has work showing in the National Gallery of Australia as well as the Victoria and Albert in London and many smaller galleries. In 1924, there was a major exhibition of her work in the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Her death too young

Sadly, in 1951, she died when she was only 59 in a car accident.

It was 20 years after her death that major changes in the ways people viewed women led to more female artists; works were included in exhibitions. Notably, in 1975, as a contribution to International Women’s Year, Ian North organised an exhibition of 68 samples of her work.

Some examples of her work

A Dorset Farmyard, 1944, Dorrit Black – photo by Sotheby’s Australia

Although she never achieved financial success during her lifetime, her paintings are now worth respectable prices:

Modernistic paintings of The Pink House valued at 58,850 AUD – 88,275 AUD ( $40,000 – 60,000),( which is a particularly fine example of Modernistic painting) and A Dorset Farmyard valued at 44,850 – 58,850 AUD ($30,00 – 40,000.) A Dorset Farmyard was painted back home in Adelaide from sketches she had made 10 years earlier in 1935. She had visited the village of Chideock, a small village in Devon, on her second visit to England.

Her painting called The Eruption sold for 114,480 AUD ($84,608) – the record amount for her.

Final thoughts

Dorrit Black was a brave and enterprising woman. She was flexible enough to take on board the new Cubist and Modernistic art ideas she encountered in Europe and determined that people in Australia should also enjoy them – they were, after all, revolutionary in concept.

But not only did she produce some very fine artworks of her own she was also an inspiring teacher who shared her passion with other aspiring artists. And against a background of financial difficulty and misunderstanding, her achievements are belatedly being recognised.