The city

In the interwar period, Sydney was transformed by the dynamics of modernisation. Colonial architecture was demolished to make way for new ‘high-rise’ buildings; road systems were enlarged to accommodate the presence of the motor car, the new machine of modernity; and the rise of apartment living allowed a different perspective on the city.

Artists approached the new urban conditions with equal measures of celebration and ambivalence; the city was depicted both as a site of mass spectacle, teeming with colour and movement, and a sometimes alienating and empty industrial environment. Depictions of the city frequently emphasised the rhythms of the modern age, which were accelerated by mechanisation – escalators, trains and cars – and the irresistible tide of the crowd. Repetitive motifs and geometric patterns in the work of Dorrit Black, Ethel Spowers and Harold Cazneaux visualise the tempo of the jazz age, and its energised, syncopated rhythms.

Questions and activities

  • Find examples of artworks in this exhibition that explore the theme of the city and the structures and machines that we often take for granted such as subways and escalators. How do the artists create the mood of a bustling city? What feelings do you think they are trying to convey? Discuss your own feelings about being in a city when it is busy and crowded. Express your ideas in an artwork.
  • Consider all the machines around you. How do they support your daily life? What would you do without them? Look closely at a particular machine that you feel embodies contemporary living. Create sketches or photograph this machine from different angles. Note its symmetry or asymmetry and any use of repetition in colour, line and form. Translate these visual notes into motifs for a series of paintings.
  • The city is a common theme in art history. Create a visual timeline incorporating artworks with the city as a thread. Write text for each artwork, discussing its relevance to the theme and to the society and period in which it was made.