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This season's Bauhaus collection was inspired by pioneering female artists of the 1920s and 30s. So imagine our delight when our gorgeous model, Miss Beetown, let slip that her great great auntie, Dorrit Black, was a pioneer of the modernist art movement in 1930s Australia??! We took a moment to have a chat with Bee and find out a bit more... 

 P A L A V A : Hi Bee! Welcome to our blog! Dorrit was auntie to your grandmother - did you grandmother pass on any memories of her? 

B E E : Yes she was my great grandmother's sister. My family is very proud of Dorrit and she was often spoken about when I was growing up and we regularly visited her works in the Adelaide Art Gallery. Dorrit passed away the year before my mother was born and my mother actually lived in Dorrit's studio surrounded by her paintings and belongings until the age of 11.
I don't know a lot about her personality, but I know she was unmarried and dedicated to her art. When she returned from studying in Paris she became very involved in the Australian art scene and opened the first modern art gallery in Australia and the first run by a woman, the Modern Centre of Art in Sydney, encouraging other artists to peruse modernism. I did my year 12 (final year of school in Aus) art thesis on Dorrit so I'm quite the fan of her myself!

Dorrit Black - On the Rocks

P A L A V A : Did you grow up with any of Dorrit’s paintings at home? Did you have a favourite?

B E E : She adorns the walls of many family members! She has many fans from the extended family and friends who also own her work. I think the family is torn between wanting her work to be shared and keeping the pieces in the family. They had a big retrospective of her work a few years back, and named a university building after her, so I got to see many pieces that I'd seen in homes growing up, but also many that had been shut away in private collections and sought out by the curator. Her work is beautiful and she's an icon of Australian art these days. My grandmother donated and lent much of Dorrit's work to State and National galleries in Australia because she was proud of Dorrit and for so long Dorrit didn't receive the recognition she deserved, so my grandmother wanted people to see her work. My personal favourite is 'The Woman Reading', which sat on the wall of my grandmother's lounge room. If I close my eyes I can see every detail. It was only in public view once at the exhibition I mentioned so you can't find it online I don't think - sorry!

P A L A V A : Do you think Dorrit’s artistic flair filtered down through the family?

B E E : Absolutely! My family is full of artists and I've had the luxury of being supported in my own creative pursuits as a result. My mother once told me she was concerned that I'd taken a full-time retail job and wasn't seriously pursuing my creative interests - the total opposite to most parents I think! My grandmother was an architect (one of the first female architects in Australia), as well as an amazing dressmaker, poet, and artist. My auntie enjoyed a long career as a celebrated international Opera singer, and although my mother didn't pursue a creative career she is both a wonderful classical singer and naturally gifted visual artist. So, the creative genes are strong!

Dorrit Black - Spanish Dancer


P A L A V A : Would you call yourself artistic? Either traditionally or more conceptually... Your vintage style is quite an art form in itself!

B E E : Thank you. Yes I am definitely the creative type. I've done acting and music since a young age. I'm actually a professional musician and voice coach by trade. I do love visual art and dabble in it but my work is only on display on my parent's walls haha! I think my vintage make up and hair skills can be attributed to artistic genes. I spent sleepless nights as a child doing hairstyles in bed, alternating this with sculture, writing and drawing. My poor mother would wake up in the morning to find me sporting an entirely braided head, having written an illustrated short story, or having made yet another contraption from some copper wire my grandmother once gifted me! I may have been an odd child!

P A L A V A : Dorrit’s work is held at the V&A, London - have you been to see it since moving over here?

B E E : I actually didn't know that! I shall have to visit it! I wonder what's on display and if I've seen it before? Maybe I'll see something new. I won't Google it so it will be a surprise.

Dorrit Black - The Wool Quilt Makers

P A L A V A : Do you know what Dorrit’s parents thought of her work and her pursuit of art?

B E E : I'm not sure. My auntie or mother could probably answer that but Dorrit did go to art school in Paris, so perhaps it was supported. Her father was an architect, and her mother was an amateur artist and the daughter of a newspaper editor, so the apple didn't fall far from the tree. However, I have seen a letter Dorrit wrote to her brother that implied he believed she should focus her time on family, rather than her art, so it seems there was contention there. There certainly was with many of the women in her artistic circle, including the likes of Grace Crowley and Margaret Preston. It was a time when women were expected to be homemakers, not running off to pursue careers overseas. Good on them for pursuing their dreams!

P A L A V A : Today, Dorrit is celebrated as a pioneer of Modernism in Australia but during her lifetime, she struggled to gain much recognition as an artist amongst the general public. Do you think that this was because she was a woman or because she was trying to introduce Australia to a new aesthetic?

B E E : A combination of both. Until recently the credit for introducing modernism to Australia was given to male artists who actually came to the scene later, but Australia was also rather closed to the concept of modern art at the time. She worked hard to change that by mentoring artists and teaching at art schools, which produced people like Jeffrey Smart and Ruth Tuck. I'm glad that these days people are starting to appreciate the contribution she made to Australian art history. Do go and see her work if you have the chance!

2 comments

  • Jane MillsNov 07, 2019

    Fascinating and so good to read about the family connections – thank you Bee!!

  • Julie ToozeNov 07, 2019

    Wow how interesting love the art work what an inspiration

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