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Modernism, Modernization and Modernity in Australia, 1919-1939 Report (Assessment)

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Updated: Dec 10th, 2019


Modernization refers to the transition between the traditional agrarian society to developed modern society, which is based on industry and trade. It is a process through which a society undergoes social and economical changes like urbanization and industrialization that result to transformation of individual’s way of life.

Modernism is a cultural change that entails continuous developing art, music, architecture, design, and literature that came up before 1914. The change was steered by artists and designers who were not in support of 19th century historicists and academic traditions. Propagators of modernism embraced new social, political and cultural aspects of the rising modern world.

Modernity in a society is defined as the presence of features of modern societies, which have democratic political organizations, capitalistic economies, industrialization and social stratification, women empowerment and their encroachment in social spheres initially dominated by men, low birth and mortality rates, standard system of education, and wide use of technology.

Change in the Australian Society

In the 1920s, the Australian society was characterized by a strong spirit and will to progress and embrace change (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980). This period was marked by tremendous improvement in Australians standards of living because of technological advances and mass production.

Advance of technology in the Australian society increased materialism, consumerism and modernization, consequently leading to introduction of shorter working hours, establishment of car manufacturing industries and development of public infrastructure (transport). Entertainment and recreation industry has its roots in the development of dancehalls, picture palaces and introduction of radio.

The figure of the ‘flapper’ and her mode of dressing initiated Australians quest for pleasure and changes in moral and social values and attitudes. The country experienced political change, a country party, communist party and ACTU (Australian council of trade unions) were formed.

The society was still divided along race, class and gender. This period was characterized by industrial conflicts, strikes and capital –labor disputes, women were unable to exercise their political rights and indigenous Australians continued to be oppressed through marginalization and degradation (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980).

During the early 20th century, the Australians populations grew due to influx of immigrants. Immigrants and their cultures transformed the society in various ways. For instance, optimism society came up in Australia. The optimism society embraced new materials, colors and texture. Increase in population also led to a clear distinction between urban and rural residents.

Australian academicians and researchers were able to draw a line between museums and galleries, and collection of antiques became a profession because of specialization. Bradley, Smith and Smith (1980) assert that modernism came into Australia in the early 20th century through expatriates, immigrants, publications and exhibitions. Immigration was the main catalyst to the process of modernization in Australia.

This is because arrives brought in their skills, family values, education and cultural norms. Their interaction with native Australians bred new ways of taking food from cafes and milk bars, improvised designs in public buildings, change in approaches to recreation activities, and new architectural designs (Stephen, Goad & McNamara, 2008).

Architects involved in the twentieth century urban planning emphasized on the view of cityscapes created from streets, roads, facades, street furniture and buildings. The process of modernization led to professionalization of activities dealing with objects like porcelain and furniture. Decorating and reproducing antiques was described as modern.

This is evident in David Jones collections in an exhibition with antiques such as lithographs, engravings, etchings, paintings, pencil sketches, and furniture. Sydney collections are published in stories of old Sydney journal. His drawings are published in relics of colonial old days.

Robin Boyd in his writings in 1950s played an advocacy role in promoting a sense of modernism without featurism of the traditional Australian society that according to his judgment was resulting from camouflaging the present in suburban Australia. Robin Boyd disliked the clash of color and shapes used in construction of shops and housing.

Urbanization in Australia has its roots in development of cities and urban life. Urban culture in Australia was characterized people living in urban centers detaching themselves from their rural folks. Urban life was characterized by new activities like interior design, special stores and tall buildings.

Sydney Ure Smith hosted an exhibition on interior designs. The exhibition entailed six rooms, which were furnished, decorated and designed in the modern way by artists like Thea Proctor. She settled in Australia at Melbourne after the world war 11. She broadly wrote on flower arranging, fashion, interior designs and colors of cars. Proctor designed the modern lacquer room restaurant in a fashionable way in 1932 for Farmer and Co. Ltd (Stephen, Goad & McNamara, 2008).

The inter-war period is critical in the advent of modernity in Australia. In this period, there were major evolutions in the field of architecture in Australia. The world war and immigration Influx caused depression in the society and triggered creativity leading to growth. According to Bradley, Smith and Smith (1980), the process of modernization enhanced creation of new styles and trends that moved toward societal progress.

The process of architectural evolution involved use of new materials, new advanced technology and new methods were discovered. During this period, different forces of modernity inspired architects. Modernism was Europe’s influence and art decorations came from both North America and Europe.

The interwar period was characterized by change in orientation for the Australian natives. This necessitated integration of cultural aspects from the visitors, providing inspiration and urge to progress for the natives (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980).

Modernization in architecture in Australia was initiated by: Australian natives travelling to other countries to study or work. The architects came back to the country to design and execute using the new learned ideas. An example is Percy Everett who used art decoration ideas and modernism principles learnt from North America to design the technical school Essendon in 1938.

Modern architectural ideas were also borrowed architect immigrants who used their knowledge to influence and inspire others. Researchers, publication and news from other countries brought in new impulses in the society. Architecture in Australia evolved from neo-gothic style, which involves use of stone in construction. The art decoration style originated from France.

Architects used geometrical and angular phase, and the advanced one involved curved and streamlined styles that represented speed and readiness. For example, harry Norris played a vital role in integrating the deco style into the Australian system. Harry Norris designed luxurious residence like Burnham Beeches in 1933. His design was a streamline modern style decorated with a zigzag motif.

Bradley, Smith and Smith (1980) assert that modernist architecture aims at performing specific functions. Its main features are functionality, minimalism and geometric shapes. An example is the Yule house designed by Oakley and Parkes. It has strong horizontal spandrels and long windows for ventilation. Beach culture came up to help in the healing process after the world war.

The nation had also started embracing outdoor relaxation and leisure activities as part of their lives. The materials used in constructing beaches were chosen carefully to ensure that they suites Australia’s weather. For instance, they had features like broad veranda, tall stumps, and ventilators and pitched roofs (Stephen, Goad & McNamara, 2008). New technologies and materials characterized Modernism in architecture.

This enabled architects to advance in the evolution of design. Technology facilitated creation of new building materials through industrialization, which made the materials cheap, readily available due to mass production and flexible to use. The materials included concrete, glass and steel.

Growth in population led to mass production to cater for the population needs. There was thus a requirement for better means of production hence growth of industries. Urban centers came up to house the population that was detached from their folks. This was necessitated by modernization ideologies held by the population (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980).

Stephen, Goad and McNamara (2008) assert that Australia’s international relations emerged as dominion (autonomous polities that were formed after freedom from British domination). Later commonwealth allied Australia with New Zealand through Australia and New Zealand army corps formed in 1915 to participate in the First World War (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980).

Currently Australia’s international relations are influenced by its high footage in trade and the humanitarian aid offered by its governmental and non-governmental organizations. Modernization is characterized by global connectedness; it has prompted Australia to enact foreign policies which regulate its relations with international allies (Daniel, 1958).

According to Daniel (1958), the Australian society had modernity signs as early as 1913 but the public could not experience it. Modernism came late in Australia. During the World War 1, modern art emerged In Australia. State libraries, Lindsay brothers, and galleries began to use art to attack modernism (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980).

The Agapitos collections, including paintings, collages, prints, photographs, sculptures and drawings were exhibited in Australia to showcase surrealist ideas to the public. Surrealism has influenced modern arts including photography, film, painting and sculpture.

His aim was to steer conception of new ideas and quest for change in the society, which ultimately inspired the citizens leading to implementation of ideas to achieve modernity. Surrealism aimed at creating an agreement between the two different states of the mind, dream and reality. Surrealism invented imagery in order to portray dream-like scenes (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980).

Surrealism opened new avenues to creative processes like exquisite corpse, frottage and decalcomania. This processes similarity was focus on liberation of the subconscious mind via relaxation of conscious control.

The surrealism art was publicized through exhibitions, for instance surrealist exhibition, Dada and surrealism and art staged fantastic art in 1936. Promotions were also carried out through publications, newspaper, lectures and radio adverts thus cementing surrealism’s place in the Australian society (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980).

According to Stephen, Goad and McNamara (2008), In Australia, a fit healthy body was used to fight the awful experiences of the World War 1. Good health also involved sun worship, fashion, beach culture and current swimming pools. Swimming in the ocean was viewed as modern freedom and accrued benefits of living the Australian way.

Beaches were used as social places, a place for sun worship and for carrying out exercises. Swimming success in Melbourne 1956 Olympics made swimming to be recognized as a sport in the country. Australians started embracing swimming as an essential activity in their daily lives.

This led to innovation of the swimming pools with modern features. For instance, James Birell in his construction of centenary pools, (1957-59) he applied flowing patterns and organic planning in the designs he used (Augoustinos & Reynolds, 2001).

Bradley, Smith and Smith (1980) indicate that during the world war 11, artists in Australians developed aesthetics, which were displayed in all aspects of the society ranging from architecture to fashion. The society was experiencing change in professional standards, unity, authenticity and styles. This period was marked by materialism and class stratified abundance of material culture, the society.

Architects were actively analyzing and popularizing facets of built and decorative arts. They held strong views on urban planning and were consulted before excavations to research sites and help in making restoration decisions (Bradley, Smith & Smith, 1980). Design history focuses on mass production, modernity and mass taste. Material artifacts are used in the creation of ancient histories of material objects.

In Australia, the early 20th century was bound with specific design practice informed by highly motivated artists. Materials are used in the study of ancient societies and rebuilding their culture. For instance, during the world war 11, artists were able to express factors like social class, architecture, home decorations and preferred designs in the society.

Rod (1990) researched on the effect of aestheticism on interior design and consumerism in Melbourne in the 19th century. She asserts that art applied arts plays a critical role in advertising, design and fashion.

According to Eagle (1990), modernism manifested itself in Australian art through the traces evident in fashion consumer goods in taste and form in the market. According to Eagle, home magazine is a good demonstration of how art and design can be mixed. It depicts both modernity and desire.

In conclusion, modernity is the presence of features associated with modernization in a society. Modernization is the process of transformation from a traditional society practicing ancient hunting and gathering to an industrialized society and its associate features like technology development, centralized government, social stratification, and urbanization.

Modernism is a cultural change that entails continuous developing art, music, architecture, design, and literature that came up before 1914. Modernism in Australia started in the early 20th century. Ideas of modernization got into the Australian society through immigration during the world wars.

Immigrants ideas were converted and implemented in the society positively thus leading to the achievement of modernization. For instance, students who travelled out of the country to study borrowed architectural ideas from other societies. Immigrants who were architectural specialists used their ideas in construction in the society.


Urbanization in Australia was influenced by population growth. This led to industrialization and other infrastructural changes like transport development to serve the industries. Various artists in Australia helped propagate modernity ideologies and development in the society.

This was through pieces of art that tasked people to interpret their ideas and use them productively. Art and new designs adopted by Australians led to complete change of life in the society. For instance, introduction of beaches and exquisite designs used in the construction introduced the idea of leisure and outdoor relaxation in the society.


Augoustinos, M. & Reynolds, J. (2001). Understanding prejudice, racism, and social conflict. New York: Sage Publications Ltd.

Bradley, K., Smith, B. & Smith, T. (1980). Australian Art and Architecture: Essays Presented to Bernard Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daniel, L. (1958). The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. Glencoe, III: Free Press.

Rod, J. (1990). Australian Modern Painting Between the Wars 1914-1939 by Mary Eagle. Melbourne: CAE

Stephen, A. Goad, P. & McNamara, A. (2008). Introduction to modern times: The untold story of modernism in Australia. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press

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