Flower piece 1943 also known as 'Gum leaves and bush foliage' signed and dated 'G. Cossington / Smith / 43' upper right oil on pulpboard 52.0 x 43.4cm (20 1/2 x 17 1/16in).
PROVENANCE Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1988
EXHIBITED Possibly Grace Cossington Smith: exhibition of paintings, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 13-25 June 1945, cat. no. 15, titled Gum Leaves and Bush Foliage Grace Cossington Smith, A Retrospective Exhibition, touring exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 4 March 13 June 2005; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 29 July 9 October 2005; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 29 October 2005 15 January 2006; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 11 February 30 April 2005
LITERATURE Deborah Hart, et al, Grace Cossington Smith, exh. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, pp. 65, 179, p. 184 (illus.)
The most immediately striking observation to be made about Flower piece 1943, is that it contains no flowers. While Grace Cossington Smith's flower pieces of the 1930s were indeed often of flowers from the garden of the family home, Cossington, in Sydney's northern suburb of Turramurra, or bought by the Smith sisters on trips into the city - her wartime 'flower pieces' were, rather, of bush foliage and gum leaves. Wartime austerity may be a practical reason for this change; it is also an indication of the solace she found in the Australian bush that she painted repeatedly during the 1940s. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that recent research by Eric Riddler indicates that this painting is almost certainly the one exhibited as Gum leaves and bush foliage in the Cossington Smith solo exhibition at Sydney's Macquarie Galleries in 1945. By the time it entered the Grundy collection in 1988, acquired from Niagara Galleries in Melbourne, its name was established as Flower piece.
This painting is also striking because, unlike the other still lives of foliage that she painted during the war, the gum leaves and bush foliage on this canvas are not posed with drapery or presented in an ornate vessel. Here, a plain vase, with water visible, is placed on a tray low in the composition, partially cut off, a base in the lower right-hand corner that supports the burst of colour that fills the canvas, holding our attention. This is very different from Foliage in a large cup and saucer c.1942, or Drapery with wattle c.1944, in which the leaves and flowers are posed in fine vessels and centred in the composition, so that we see them in a formal setting, and from a certain distance. In Flower piece 1943, the background is neutral, with nothing to distract the eye from the red gum leaves that push forward into the picture plane, or from the brilliant green of leaf, the curl of fern or blue frond of Cootamundra wattle. When Daniel Thomas, who curated the first retrospective of Grace Cossington Smith's work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1973, saw this painting for the first time in the Grundy collection, he was moved by the vibrancy and daring of a work painted during the bleak depths of the Second World War.
In 1943 Grace Cossington Smith was living in Cossington, Turramurra, with one of her two unmarried sisters. Both parents had died; Charlotte, or Diddy, had volunteered with the Queen Alexandra Nursing Service in the British army and was away for seven years, much of the time in Burma. Madge, the sister who appears in The sock knitter, knitting for the troops in the previous war, was still at home. She and Grace did not retreat to the mountains, as so many did, after Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour. Cossington Smith volunteered as an air-raid warden, and at night patrolled the streets of Turramurra. During the day she painted.
In 1944 she painted Dawn landing, in which a landing ship spills young soldiers onto the canvas, marching into the picture plane, and into battle. Her nephew William, the second son of her eldest sister, Mabel, took part in the Normandy landings, and it was his face she had in mind for the foremost soldier. Having lived through World War I, which had killed so many young men of her generation, Cossington Smith was acutely aware of the waste of war.
Flower piece, which so surprised Daniel Thomas for the vibrancy of its colour, predates Dawn landing by just one year and might be considered a counterpoint to that sombre work. There muted tones suggest the loss of innocence and of young lives; here we see a celebration of youth, life and regeneration. The gum leaves and foliage, almost certainly picked from the gully behind the family home, may also be an assertion of the natural world, even of Australia, as a corrective to the internecine conflicts of men.
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