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image icon 'The Debussy Quartet in G', 1937

'The Debussy Quartet in G', 1937
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a black-and-white photograph made in 1937 by Max Dupain (1911-92). It is a fantasy, dream-like image made up of sections of flower forms and the body of a young woman, and measures 41.5 cm x 30.5 cm.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a photographic work by Max Dupain, who is regarded as one of Australia's most significant photographers of the modern era - Dupain trained as a photographer in the late 1920s, when art photography and Pictorialism (a photographic movement of the early 20th century that subscribed to the idea that art photography needed to emulate the painting and printmaking of the time) dominated the photographic scene within Australia; by the mid-1930s, Dupain had begun to use an approach very similar to that of Europe's 'new photography', involving the photographer working like a reporter to document scenes from everyday life, and experimenting in the darkroom to create essentially modern images using design, pattern and composition
  • 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 Dupain and his fellow photographer and former wife Olive Cotton (1911-2003) took an interest in and were influenced by contemporary overseas developments, particularly as reported in English photographic publications and German magazines which were at the forefront of what was then known as 'new photography'
  • references the close relationship between artistic photography and advertising art in the period between the World Wars - many art museums and influential art critics during this period 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 innovative photographic techniques such as collage and montage (combining different images into one), double exposure, radical cropping of the image, extreme close-ups and patterned repetition of visual units; 'The Debussy Quartet in G' uses a language of suggestion by associating the figure of a woman with that of a flower
  • is a photomontage - this is a technique for making a photographic image either by cutting and joining sections of different photographs to create a composite image, or by using a composite negative composed of selections from different negatives (as was used to create 'The Debussy Quartet in G'); this technique was one of a wide number developed by the movements Dadaism (1916-20) and Surrealism as ways of freeing the creative process from conscious control
  • reflects (in its interpretation of the subject) a modern approach to photography that involved being interested in the forms of things, rather than their everyday meanings and appearances - the head of the woman appears to be turning into a plant and her lower body tapers into an organic petal-like form that floats away from her body; the background is dark, which creates the illusion that this hybrid form is floating in water or deep space; the semi-transparent overlaps between the images help reinforce this illusion
  • demonstrates Dupain's deep understanding of the basic idea that all pictorial art is built on a system of visual symbols - an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004 traced the relationship between Dupain's work and ideas and those of the great European modernist photographer Man Ray (1890-1976); Dupain commented that Man Ray 'possesses a great ability to treat the most complex of subject matter so that ... it is broken down to a design of essential lines and masses'; this approach is evident in 'The Debussy quartet in G', in the way the artist has merged sections of plants and the woman's body, treating them essentially as independent units to be combined in free association
  • reflects (in its title and imagery) Dupain's interest in music - Dupain was particularly taken with the work of modern and avant-garde composers such as Claude Achille Debussy (1862-1918), Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951); Debussy’s 'Quartet in G', written in 1893, uses a whole-tone scale that was said to create a sense of floating, ethereal harmony, elements of which can be identified within Dupain's photograph of the same title.