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image icon 'Teacup ballet', 1935

'Teacup ballet', 1935
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a black-and-white photograph, measuring 35.4 cm x 28.4 cm, that was made by Olive Cotton (1911-2003) in 1935. It consists of a group of six cups and saucers that have been carefully arranged in an asymmetrical pattern on a flat surface. The items have a glossy surface and are slightly translucent, which suggests they are made from bone china. The composition is spotlit from above, with the light angled so that each cup and saucer throws a long shadow along the surface towards the viewer. The strong angular shapes of these shadows dominate the entire composition.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Olive Cotton, who is recognised as one of Australia's leading 20th-century photographers and a pioneer in the development of Australian modernist photography - exhibiting professionally from the early 1930s, Cotton joined the studio of photographer Max Dupain (1911-92) in 1934; she undertook a variety of commissions during the Second World War years (including product advertising, book illustrations, portraits and child studies), before moving to Cowra in 1945; there she continued to keep a photographic record of daily life and, in 1964, opened her own studio; little known for much of her career, Cotton was honoured by a retrospective exhibition held at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, in 1985
  • is critically regarded as one of Cotton's finest and most memorable photographic works - in 1935, 'Teacup ballet' was hung in the London Salon of Photography (two other works by the artist, 'Shasta daisies' and 'Winter willows', were included in the same event two years later); the work was also included in the Australian Bicentennial national touring exhibition, 'Creating Australia, 200 Years of Australian Art, 1788-1988'; in 1991, an image of 'Teacup ballet' was used on an Australian stamp that was issued to mark the 150th anniversary of photography in Australia
  • is characteristic of Cotton's approach to photography in the 1930s - this approach was indebted to Pictorialism, a style of photography that dominated Australian photography well into the 20th century and was typified by the use of soft-focus and atmospheric effects (as seen in the slight fuzziness in some areas of 'Teacup ballet'); Cotton was also using modernist photographic devices, such as dramatic lighting and asymmetrical composition, with striking effect
  • reflects international trends in modern photography - in Europe and the USA, after the First World War, photography emerged as an exciting experimental art form; both Cotton and Dupain (whom she married in 1939 and divorced a year later) took an interest in contemporary overseas developments, particularly as reported in English photographic publications and German magazines at the forefront of what was then known as 'new photography'; the dramatic lighting and powerful play of shadows used in 'Teacup ballet' are typical of some of the approaches used in modernist photography of the period between the wars
  • references the close relationship between artistic photography and advertising art in the period between the World Wars - many art museums and influential art critics continued to oppose modernism in the visual arts; however, advertisers saw potential in the 'shock value' of modern art's imagery and styles, which led to the appearance of a wide range of visual devices that had been pioneered by early modern artists in advertisements in high-profile lifestyle magazines, such as 'Vanity Fair' and 'Vogue'; these devices included innovatory photographic techniques such as collage and montage (combining different images into one), double exposure, radical cropping of the image, extreme close-ups, and dramatic lighting and shadows (as used in 'Teacup ballet')
  • is an excellent demonstration of how light played an important part in Cotton's photographs - the artist once commented, 'I think the way light falls is the thing that brings a photograph to life, where it falls is the sort of accent'
  • is a highly imaginative interpretation of everyday objects - through clever lighting and dynamic composition, Cotton has managed to turn an arrangement of department store crockery into art; Australian art curator Helen Ennis has said of the work, 'If you look at ā€¯Teacup ballet", one of the things about it that still works so well is just its simple asymmetry ... and just that arrangement so she gets a lot of internal dynamism, and you then really see that the shadows work, and it's as if the cups are dancing'.