Margo Lewers: Thoroughly Modern - Art Collector

Issue 24, April - June 2003

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A recent retrospective has sparked renewed interest in Margo Lewers's significant contribution to Australian art, writes Joan Kerr.

Margo Lewers died twenty-five years ago, in February 1978, after a long and distinguished career. Her first retrospective opened at the National Trust S.H. Ervin Gallery in 2002. However belated, it was an ambitious re-evaluation, an unqualified claim of a leading place for her in the story of Australian abstract art. This was not just another ‘forgotten woman artist’ show.

In fact, Lewers has never quite been forgotten although, ironically, she has been more identified with the traditional feminine virtues of home, family and supporter of others than with making art. The legend began at birth – her father was the emigrant German artist Adolph Plate – was continued with her promotion of avant-garde designers in her 1930s Sydney craft shop and culminated in her long partnership with sculptor Gerald (Gerry) Lewers. That was, however, only half the story. It obscured her significance as a painter, designer, craftworker and sculptor (after Gerry died in 1962). This formidable woman never sacrificed her art to family, husband or friends. She managed to have the lot.

Margo Plate and Gerry Lewers’s marriage in 1933 united two artists with many aims in common (though very different means of realising them). They worked and exhibited side by side, and in 1941 helped found the Contemporary Art Society. In the 1950s they created a home at rural Emu Plains, on the Nepean River at the base of the Blue Mountains, whose stylishness, modernity and hospitality were legendary. As Patrick White, a regular visitor, wrote: it was “one of the focus points of our still tentative civilisation”.

As well as cooking great meals, hosting fabulous parties and creating exotic outfits for herself and the children, Margo was primarily responsible for the design of house and garden. The décor of the house she built for her mother next door to the original cottage, with hessian-covered doors and drawers in the bedrooms, a kitchen mosaic and a dramatic mural of dyed cork in ‘a merging of varied squares in peacock and inky blues with a hint of turquoise’, was as radical as anything at Heide – John and Sunday Reed’s similarly avant-garde rural residence outside Melbourne. As the family home of working artists, however, its bohemianism was far less scandalous than Heide’s. Daniel Thomas falling into an incomplete well at one of Margo’s evening parties has none of the mythic potential of Sidney Nolan falling into the Reeds’ double bed.

Margo’s dream of the place becoming a museum after she died was realised by her artist daughters, Darani Lewers and Tanya Crothers. Now owned by the local council, the Lewers Bequest and Penrith Regional Art Gallery is a shrine to Australian modernist art where Margo stars among family and friends. Yet perhaps it too has helped distort her identity. Margo herself was not averse to being seen as half of a celebrity art couple, despite a varied, creative career before marriage and fourteen productive years as a painter after Gerry’s death. That definition had advantages for a woman artist, particularly in the misogynist 1950s.

The standard monograph, Denise Hickey’s Gerald and Margo Lewers published in 1982, gives due emphasis to Margo’s aesthetic versatility and quality but understandably focuses on their joint achievements in developing Australian art. It set the tone for most evaluations until Pamela Bell’s 2002 retrospective proved the value of a single lens focus. Her solo exhibition consisted mainly of paintings from the early 1950s (when they moved to Emu Plains) to 1977 (a few months before Margo died), plus a few late plexiglass constructions and bright fabric hangings. A couple of strikingly simple pots Margo made for her pioneer ceramic shop in the 1930s were also included, but it was the powerful, experimental paintings so regularly and successfully exhibited in her lifetime that made critical ignorance of her work look patriarchal and partisan.

Renewed interest in the history of abstract art has just begun to reach NSW artists of this generation. As well as Margo (b.1908), painters like John Passmore (b.1904), Helen Lempriere (b.1907) and Margo’s younger brother Carl Plate (b.1909) fell from favour during the heyday of minimalist art. Although totally committed to the dominant visual language of the twentieth century – abstraction – they never entirely abandoned natural motifs. Influenced by British Constructivist painting and the Bauhaus belief in total design, Margo’s early work generally includes easily discernible objects – her easel, for example, in the foreground of the watercolour Studio (c.1952). This early technique of abstracting from nature was wittily parodied in Margo Draws a Vertebrae 4, a coloured pencil sketch done at Emu Plains in 1945 by a lifelong family friend, Frank Hinder (b.1906). Later paintings, influenced by European rather than US Abstract Expressionism, continued to refer to local colour, light and landscapes.

Now that Australian abstract art is finally being seen as separate to either the European or American movement, aficionados may make pilgrimages to Emu Plains instead of New York and more tourists detour en route to Springwood. Margo’s paintings and décor and Gerry’s sculptures (along with some good Aboriginal rock engravings he saved from becoming road rubble) are as uniquely Australian as Norman Lindsay’s Blue Mountains’ paganism. It has just taken 40-odd years to see them as such.

Margo’s paintings rarely appear on the art market and were extremely cheap until 2000, when Christie’s auctioned the Harold Mertz Collection. Then the National Gallery of Victoria – not previously known for its interest in Sydney abstraction – surprised everyone by paying $13,000 for her 1964 Something to Come, estimated at $2,000-$4,000 and reproduced upside down in the catalogue. It was still a bargain. As the NGV Curator of Australian Art, Jennifer Phipps, commented: “For something of its size and exhibition history it was very undervalued. [Lewers] is an important figure and she does not come up much at all.”

All three (sic) women represented in the 1966 exhibition of 148 modern Australian artworks acquired by Mertz – the others were Jacqueline Hick and Eva Kubbos – are still surprisingly obscure. With a strong solo exhibition touring the country, Lewers is likely to be the first to join the bulk of male Mertz artists and become a household name.

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