Warning: This resource may contain references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may have passed away.

Australia in the 1930s

Art and music

In 1937, Margaret Preston (1875–1963) won a silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition and became the first female artist to be commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales to paint a self-portrait. She also published what has been described as a modernist feminist autobiographical essay titled From Eggs to Electrolux.

In 1939, James Gleeson (1915–2008) exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society in its inaugural exhibition in Melbourne. His paintings followed the surrealist style and protested against the horrors of war and 'man's inhumanity to man'. His paintings warned of the imminent danger of another war to come.

People in the 1930s listened to the innovative music of Percy Grainger (1882–1961) and the jazz of Billy Hyde (1918–76), and many played and sang around the piano or pianola for entertainment.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales

A snapshot of 1938

  • January
    • The first national conference of Indigenous Australians was held at the Australian Hall, Sydney, to mark a 'Day of Mourning' and protest during the 150th Australia Day anniversary of colonial settlement. The conference was initiated by William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aborigines League (AAL), and The Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), led by William Ferguson, and Jack Patten. Participants called for Aboriginal land and citizenship rights.

  • March
    • Xavier Herbert won the Commonwealth sesquicentennial (150 years) literary prize for his novel Capricornia.
    • Daisy Bates (1863-1951), a social worker in Aboriginal communities and an anthropologist, published her book The Passing of the Aborigines.
    • Many of Bates's views and stories were sensationalist and incorrect, and many Aboriginal people indicated ambivalence about her and her work.

  • July
    • All exports of iron ore from Australia to Japan were suspended as Japan was seen as militaristic.

  • December
    • The federal government announced that refugees from (Nazi) Germany were to be relocated in Australia.
    • A direct radio–telephone link was set up between Canberra and Washington as a sign of closer US–Australian government cooperation.
    • Albert Namatjira, an Indigenous artist, held his first exhibition of paintings in Melbourne. All 41 pieces sold within three days of the opening.


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