Dorrit Black (1891-1951) is one of the most unsung heroines of Australian Art. Born in Burnside, Adelaide, she trained at a number of art schools, including the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, and Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. In 1927 Dorrit Black went to London and attended the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, and later at Andre Lhote’s Academy in Paris. Influenced by the Modernist and Cubist art movements Dorrit Black returned to Australia in 1929. In 1930 at the Macquarie Gallery, Sydney she held her first of six one-woman exhibitions, the final one being in 1949. Dorrit Black was determined to create a studio and gallery devoted to Modernism. She opened the Modern Art Centre, in Margaret Street, Sydney, amongst the first women in Australia to create and operate an art gallery for the benefit of others. Throughout the 1930s the gallery became of enormous importance and influence for artists such as Grace Crowley and Grace Crossington Smith. Perhaps the most well-known painting by Dorrit Black is The Bridge (1930).
Construction of The Sydney Harbour Bridge began in 1923 and was completed in 1932. Many artists were inspired by the building of bridge, which until 2012 was the world’s widest long-span bridge. It is still the world’s tallest steel arch bridge. Throughout 1930, and coinciding with Dorrit Black’s return to Australia, the two halves of the single arch gradually came together, finally joining 19 August 1930. It is today, however, perhaps difficult to appreciate the impact and importance of Dorrit Black’s The Bridge. Not only does it capture this particular moment in time, but is one of the first examples of Australian cubist art. Furthermore, the cubist modernist vision allows for a freedom of expression – a beautiful echo of the historical past blending harmoniously with the present, exemplified by the old world five mast sailing ship in front of the left half of the steel arch representing the modern world. The chosen colours, particularly the respective shades of blue, green and grey, perfectly capture the unique beauty of Sydney Harbour. Truly extraordinary. The tragic element to all this, however, is how Dorrit Black was regarded by her own countrymen. She returned to live in Adelaide in the late 1930s and whilst she continued to work and exhibit, as well as become an active member of the new Australian Labor Party, nonetheless, she was also relatively ignored or dismissed by many. She died 13 September 1951 in Royal Adelaide Hospital after suffering a car accident. In the Adelaide newspaper, The News (22 September 1951), the respected Australian art critic Ivor Francis wrote of Dorrit Black that whilst, ‘deeply respected by the more informed section of Adelaide artists. She has so consistently been artistically cold-shouldered and ignored since her return here about 20 years ago that it is amazing how she maintained the courage to fight on against so much prejudice and misunderstanding. Regarded as not sufficiently “advanced” by one section, and too “modern” by the other, it will be many years before her exceptional talent can be properly appreciated in its right perspective, as it most certainly will be’. The Art Gallery of South Australia mounted a major retrospective of Dorrit Black’s work in June 2014.