Technological advancements and political and social upheaval brought great change during the early decades of the twentieth century. While the origins of this transformation are found in the Industrial Revolution, the First World War brought on what we now refer to as ‘the machine age’, the key motifs of which were the city, construction and new technologies. In their search to find new ways to image the world, the focus of many artists turned to the city as the primary site of modernity. Despite the mythologising of the Australian landscape and life in the bush, such a key factor in the national discourse surrounding Federation, it was an incontrovertible truth — and remains so — that Australia was a highly urbanised society, with the majority of the population living in a handful of large cities.
A considerable number of Australian artists embraced art movements that were being practiced in England, Europe and North America to create a local form of modernism. For example, while abstraction allowed artists to distil complex subjects into ideal forms, Cubism and ideas around dynamism opened up new possibilities to convey the effects of mechanisation and a modernist experience of time and space across printmaking, photography and painting.
Many of the early engagements by Australian artists with abstraction remained anchored in readily recognisable subjects. However, by the 1940s, some artists like Ralph Balson and Grace Crowley engaged more actively with ideas of ‘pure abstraction’.