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image icon 'The olive plantation', 1946

'The olive plantation', 1946
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This is a landscape painting in oils, measuring 63.5 cm x 86.5 cm, by Dorrit Black (1891-1951), dated 1946. It shows a series of hillsides covered mainly with neat rows of olive trees and some stands of native scrub on the edges. The viewpoint is unusual - it is almost as if the rolling hills and rows of trees are being seen from a small plane that is ridge-hopping rather than flying high overhead. The composition is dominated by the landmass - the sky has been squeezed into an irregular triangular space hard up against the top of the image. The hillsides have generous curves but drop suddenly into deep valleys that are being claimed by dark, late-afternoon shadows. Although the image is descriptive to a degree, the style of representation of each of the items in the work - from the cloud form at the top right to the rows of single olive trees - is more generalised than it is detailed.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is acknowledged as one of the great Australian modernist landscapes
  • is a painting by Dorrit Black (1891-1951) who studied art (particularly Cubist art) in both London and Paris in the late 1920s; until her death in 1951 she continued to make a significant contribution to the Australian art community by teaching, promoting and practising the philosophy of Modernism, initially in Sydney in the 1930s and then in Adelaide in the 1940s
  • is a significant work of art by an Australian woman artist - from 1925 to 1945 a number of Australian women artists, including Margaret Preston (1875-1963), Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984), Nora Heysen (1911-2003), Thea Proctor (1879-1966), Dorrit Black (1891-1951), Grace Crowley (1890-1979) and Joy Hester (1920-60), explored new ideas about art (often in the face of conservative male opposition) to extend painting and printmaking in ways that challenged other artists and Australian audiences
  • demonstrates Black's particular skill in creating images of great vitality - the action of the plantation rows 'leaping up' in the foreground, then curving up the facing hillside has a mesmerising effect on many viewers, who also often comment on a sense of the rows being expanded and squeezed; the sweeping diagonals of the three dominant ridges of the hillsides also contribute a strong sense of movement
  • is a powerful image that continues to evoke strong personal responses - some commentators have seen, in the bold curves and hollows of the hills, references to the human body; the fact that this painting was made very soon after the end of the Second World War has caused other commentators to see a connection between the production-line-like rows of trees and the dehumanising nature of modern mechanised warfare; the olive trees have been equated with symbols of peace and regeneration
  • demonstrates the influence of Cubism on Black's art - in the late 1920s Black studied in Paris under AndrĂ© Lhote (1885-1962), a French artist well known for his teaching founded on principles of Cubism; Black attended a summer school organised by Lhote at Mirmande, a small village in the south of France; one of Black's paintings of this village is composed entirely of blocks; elements of a Cubist approach to landscape can be seen in 'The olive plantation' in the simplification of forms such as the olive trees in the foreground and the flattening of distance through the reduction of the plantation rows and trees into almost abstract shapes and patterns.