Dorrit Black by Lara Nicholls

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Constructed from a clever arrangement of colour, form and line, its flattened planes of brilliant turquoise, greens and blues arouse the eye. The foreground is anchored by the simple shape of sloping roofs. A succession of angles that never quite meet make for a dynamic composition. The jetty to the left reaches out into the water; the outline of a clipper heads towards the shoreline. Above all of this looms the two opposite curves of the Sydney Harbour Bridge thrusting up into the sky.

When Dorrit Black returned to Australia from London and France in 1929 fresh from her studies at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art and Andre Lhote’s Academie Montparnasse, she was referred to as ‘a modern of moderns’.(1)The bridge 1930 is one of the first major paintings she completed in Sydney following her immersion in the European contemporary art scene and it shone as testament to all she had learnt from the masters of modernism. Symbolising regeneration and progress in the face of the Depression, the subject of the work, the bridge under construction, was future forward in conception. But it was Black’s radical treatment of the familiar picturesque image of the famous harbour that roused a response in viewers.

Number one in her first solo exhibition in Sydney at the Macquarie Galleries in 1930, The bridge announced that something new had begun. Widely recognised as ‘Australia’s first cubist landscape’, the painting exudes surprising courage to viewers 90 years later.(2) One reviewer commented of the show, ‘the collection should excite interest, not only because of the vigorous work it contains, but because it furnishes an example of modern experiments in new theories of art’.(3)

In 1931 Black became the first female gallerist in Australia when she opened her progressive Modern Art Centre in Sydney. In a draft speech for the opening she summed up the remarkable ideological shift that had taken place: ‘Realistic painting has proved to be a blind alley. We have reached the end of that alley and been obliged to turn around and retrace our steps. Now we have started on the new track, and already find it rich in new discoveries.’(4)

At the end of 1933, having marked out an indelible place among the Sydney modernists, Black returned to Adelaide to care for her mother and stayed to build a home and studio at Magill. While driving her fashionable and thoroughly modern blue Fiat convertible in Norwood she had a car accident and on 13 September 1951 she succumbed to her injuries. Fellow artist Ivor Francis declared in the obituary for his friend, that she was ‘Adelaide’s first and, perhaps, least understood “modern” artist’.(5)

(1) ‘Disciple of modern art: Miss Dorrit Black on the new school’, The Register News-Pictorial, Adelaide, 5 September 1929, p 28.

(2) Tracey Lock-Weir, Dorrit Black: Unseen forces, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2014, p 63.

(3) ‘Art exhibition: Miss Dorrit Black’s pictures’, Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 11 September 1930, p 7.

(4) Dorrit Black, ‘Speech at the opening of the Modern Group’, 16 March 1932, in Ian North, The art of Dorrit Black, Art Gallery of South Australia and Macmillan Company of Australia, 1979, appendix 2, p 144.

(5) Ivor Francis, ‘Dorrit Black’, The News, Adelaide, 22 September 1951, p 4.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Nicholls, Lara. "Dorrit Black" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 46–47.

Dorrit Black appears in