XV Independent Group of Artists

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XV Independent Group of Artists

In the late 1930s, the Australian art world was bitterly divided between modernists and realists. Many Sydney-based realist artists became disillusioned with the direction of the Sydney art societies, especially the Society of Artists, which they perceived as welcoming modernist trends in art. A national conservative response to the rise of Modernism was the formation of the Australian Academy of Art which was modelled on the Royal Academy of Arts in London. In 1938 a group of 15 Sydney artists, who were disillusioned by both the existing art societies and the newly established Academy of Art, formed a dissident art group which they named the 'XV Independent Group'. With a diverse mix of male professional artists among its membership, the XV Independent Group was active from 1938 to the end of World War II.

The group's formation was partly a protest against the formation of the Australian Academy of Art, established by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1937, and the selection policy of the existing art societies. Unconnected with a similarly-named group in Melbourne, the group’s first exhibition was held in October 1938 at the Blaxland Galleries in Farmer's department store in Sydney.

More than 15 artists eventually exhibited with the group. Known exhibiting artists were: Howard Ashton, Richard Ashton, Will Ashton, J Lawson Balfour, Arthur d'Auvergne Boxall, George Finey, James R Jackson, Fred Leist, Norman Lindsay, Percy Lindsay, Sydney Long, Squire Morgan (Honorary Secretary), WE Pidgeon, H Roy Rousel, A Dattilo Rubbo, GK Townshend and BJ Waterhouse. The diverse group was all-male but allowed some women to exhibit as 'guest exhibitors'. Female artists associated with the group included Margaret Coen, Mary Edwards, Elaine Haxton and Hilda Rix Nicholas.

Howard Ashton, writing in the catalogue of the first XV Independent Artist's Group exhibition, expressed, in perhaps a parody of European modernist art manifestos of the early twentieth century, what the Sydney-based dissidents believed in:

This Group of artists sets out to prove nothing and to challenge nothing. It is composed generally of professional painters who are not concerned with 'isms, are not devotees of any school, whose views on art, apart from certain fundamental matters of good craftsmanship, are as divergent as their styles. They are, in fact, a group of independents, as their title denotes.

In this exhibition will be found no work which requires a literary explanation, nothing that does not speak for itself in its own paint, nothing that the observant man, who is interested in nature or in art, cannot easily understand so far as motive is concerned. The members of the group are concerned, as a rule, in painting what they see, a business which requires a good deal more imagination if it is to be done with beauty and distinction, than is generally understood. Most of these painters are men of considerable experience and reputation. Some few are younger, with a great promise of these things. All are earnest craftsmen with something individual to say.

It is certain that this group will command public attention in this, its first exhibition, and it is hoped as time goes on it will be recognised more and more as a rallying point for Australian painters, old and young, who have some intelligible message and a sound craftsmanship with which to express it. [1]

A listing of Australian art societies published in 1939, by the Society of Artist's president Sydney Ure Smith, supplied more details of the aims of the XV Independent Group:

This Group has no constitution and no office-bearers. They hold one exhibition a year, for which there is no selection of the work, since this is a group of professional artists who can judge their own work. With an aim of encouraging promising young artists, the Group invites a selected number to exhibit with them. [2]

The group's initial protest zeal slowly tempered over the next couple of years into a diverse group of professional artists mainly of the 'old school' who shared a 'common love of craftsmanship'. [3] Some of the artists who later exhibited with the group included John Frith, HA Hanke, R Keith Harris, Robert Johnson, Noel Kilgour, Garrett Kingsley, Eric Langker, GVF Mann, Frank Norton, Wilfred Peisley, RW Phillips, Albert J Sherman and Lance Solomon.

The XV Independent Artist Group continued exhibiting at the Blaxland Galleries up to the end of World War II, but received little press coverage during the war years. Many of the XV Independent Group were, or became, members of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, so the claim of independence was somewhat dishonest. In 1942 landscape artist Howard Ashton became the new president of the Royal Art Society, following William Lister Lister. The unsigned foreword to the Royal Art Society's 1944 annual exhibition catalogue, probably written by Ashton, seems to express much of what the XV Independent Group believed at the start of the war, and explains why so many of the dissidents, diverse as they were, became members or maintained membership of the Royal Art Society:

Pictorial Art, in the years between and during two great Wars, has blossomed strangely and disturbingly in many blooms of decadence, but in all countries there are some artists who refuse to follow the cults in the latest fashions –knowing that fashions have nothing to do with good painting. The things that last in Art are Sanity and Craftsmanship. Fashions and movements disappear and seem absurd to later generations, but good drawing, good values, good painting, and sincerity always endure. [4]

References

Silas Clifford-Smith, Percy Lindsay: artist and bohemian, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2011

Heather Johnson, The Sydney Art Patronage System 1890-1940, Bungoona Technologies, Grays Point, 1997

Sydney Ure Smith (ed), Australian Art Annual 1939, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, Sydney 1939

Various exhibition catalogues of the XV Independent Group held in various institutions

Notes

[1] Howard Ashton, 'Foreword', September 1938, published in the 1938 and  1939 XV Independent Artist Group exhibition catalogues

[2] Sydney Ure Smith (ed), Australian Art Annual 1939, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, Sydney 1939, p 67

[3] Daily Telegraph, 7 October 1938

[4] 'Foreword', Royal Art Society of New South Wales 1944 annual exhibition catalogue

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