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The 50 years that changed painting 1867-1917 with Terence Maloon.

Join us for a series of Sunday afternoon lectures with Terence Maloon. This series of 12 lectures – 6 in 2024 and 6 in 2025 – looks at the reorientation of painting from 19th-century Naturalism to 20th-century Abstraction, exploring the shifts and examining the rationalisation that gained a pervasive influence over the entirety of modern and contemporary art.

In 1867 James Abbott McNeill Whistler changed the title of one of his paintings, renaming it Symphony in White – the implications of this change were more far-reaching than anyone could have imagined. Whistler’s subsequent work, which took on a musical and colouristic emphasis, began an ineluctable drift towards abstraction.

Over the next 50 years a sequence of bold initiatives seemed to intuit a common goal. The paintings of Claude Monet were more abstract than those of Whistler, Cézanne was more abstract than Monet, the followers of Gauguin even more so… until around 1910 – 1911, when the first non-objective paintings began to appear in public in various places in Europe.

One of the strangest facts surrounding the birth of Abstraction was that it was not seen as a new movement or a novel idiom. The first non-objective paintings appeared surrounded by a multitude of near-abstract, quasi-abstract and abstract-tending works which were associated with modernist movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Expressionism and much besides. The eventuation of abstract painting was the outcome of a gradual evolution or a continual stripping-down or purification which was consistently enacted by anti-academic or avant-garde painters over half a century.

An “abstract way of seeing” infiltrated not only non-objective painting, but a whole gamut of figurative painting, photography, graphic design, sculpture and architecture, and became a defining feature of modernism. This lecture series is based on the exhibition Paths to Abstraction 1867 – 1917 curated by Terence Maloon for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2008, yet it will embrace the opportunities to expand visual references and explore the ramifications for art in Australia, as well as to incorporate many afterthoughts stimulated by the 2008 exhibition.

The lectures will also be made available online at later dates.

Lecture details:

Lecture 1: An allegory of Modern Art, Balzac’s ‘Unknown Masterpiece’ 
Sunday 7 April 2024 – 2-3.15 pm

Balzac’s most famous short story tells the tale of a maverick painter who has elaborated in secret his “masterpiece”. Modern artists have been haunted by this tale. Cézanne named the painter Frenhofer his favourite character in fiction, and Picasso illustrated the centenary edition in a deluxe publication. Is this a Romantic tale about the pitfalls of idealism, the degeneration of the classical tradition, a crisis of doubt, or the perils of abstraction?

Lecture 2: Whistler and colour-music
Sunday 5 May 2024 – 2-3.15 pm

In 1867, marking the beginning of our survey, Whistler retitled a painting and thereby proposed a new, deliberately subversive way of conceiving and appreciating paintings. The repercussions were immense – effecting even the emerging “Australian Impressionists” in Sydney and Melbourne. Narrative, anecdote, allegory, illustration all became negative attributes which were rejected by avant-garde painters, despite the enduring popularity in the Salons and Academy of blockbuster epics and “literary” paintings.

Lecture 3: Monet and Cézanne – light as abstraction 
Sunday 2 June 2024 – 2-3.15 pm

The group of artists who became known as Impressionists devised a startlingly effective way of capturing natural appearances, portraying scenes bathed in a unifying light. Their submissions were consistently rejected by the Salon juries – and whereas their works contrasted increasingly with those of their contemporaries, it became harder to differentiate the individuals in the group. Monet and Cézanne greatly admired one another, but their work began to diverge in ways that bore rich implications for the history that followed.

Lecture 4: Poetic abstraction – Symbolist Aesthetics
Sunday 7 July 2024 – 2-3.15 pm

Stéphane Mallarmé was a French poet who wrote the most obscure and recondite verse of the 19th Century. His poetry was published in tiny editions, yet visual artists were among his most enthusiastic readers. Mallarmé’s portraits were painted or drawn by Manet, Whistler, Renoir, Gauguin, Vallotton, and Munch, and Matisse illustrated a magnificent edition of Mallarmé’s Poésies. This lecture explores his revolutionary poetics and the ways it anticipated the advent of abstract art.

Lecture 5: Gauguin’s graphic legacy, from Munch to Kandinsky
Sunday 4 August 2024 – 2-3.15 pm

The problematic but immensely influential notion of “primitivism” stimulated Paul Gauguin’s experiments with woodblock printing. Distributed throughout Europe, Gauguin’s prints were emulated by Matisse and Derain, by Munch and the German Expressionists, by the Russian Futurists and early Dadaists, and by Kandinsky and his circle. Kandinsky’s seminal publications, Klänge and the Blaue Reiter Almanac were illustrated with “primitive” woodblock prints that appeared at the same time when abstract paintings came into the public domain

Lecture 6: Vuillard and the possibility of abstraction in the 1890s
Sunday 1 September 2024 – 2-3.15 pm

Edouard Vuillard was generally recognised as the leading talent of the Nabi group, a group of artists who were influenced by Gauguin. An intrepid experimentalist who, well in advance of his peers, learnt to see and to conceive his works “abstractly”, Vuillard’s prodigious achievement during the 1890s will be shown within its historical context.

Further details for the 2025 series will be released later in 2024.

Lecture 7: Cézanne’s posterity
Sunday 2 March 2025 – 2-3.15 pm

Lecture 8: Fauvism and the primacy of colour
Sunday 6 April 2025 – 2-3.15 pm

Lecture 9: Cubism and the birth of abstraction
Sunday 4 May 2025 – 2-3.15 pm

Lecture 10: Art after the conquest of the air
Sunday 1 June 2025 – 2-3.15 pm

Lecture 11: The new “nature” – art and science
Sunday 6 July 2025 – 2-3.15 pm

Lecture 12: War and peace – the proliferation of abstraction in a time of conflict
Sunday 3 August 2025 – 2-3.15 pm

Accessibility: The HC Coombs lecture venue has wheelchair access (through University Avenue entrance) and accessible bathrooms nearby. If you require accessibility accommodations or a visitor Personal Emergency Evacuation plan please contact

Image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (detail), 1875, oil on panel. Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., 46.309.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.