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Linocuts of Black, Syme & Spowers

Video clip synopsis – Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers introduced to Australia a dream of European modernism--to bring art to the masses through affordable linocuts.
Year of production - 2006
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - art, artists, Betty Churcher, collectives, linocuts, printmaking, women, see all tags


Linocuts of Black, Syme & Spowers

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About the Video Clip


Linocuts of Black, Syme & Spowers is an episode of the series Hidden Treasures (15 × 5 mins) produced in 2006.

The National Gallery of Australia has more than 100,000 works in its collection—an extraordinary reservoir of creative vision and cultural history, from decorative arts to photography and sculpture.

Yet on a visit to the gallery, you’ll see only the tip of this iceberg. Carefully stored away are the things that can’t be placed on permanent display.

These unseen gems include works of exquisite fragility, from brilliant hand-painted fabrics to delicate works on paper. From Australia, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, there are masks and carvings, lithographs and linocuts, set designs and stage costumes, sketchpads and handprinted books, marionettes and maquettes, teapots and textiles, and much, much more.

Now in this series of micro-docs, former director of the gallery Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of these 'hidden treasures’.

In the entertaining, accessible style for which she is renowned, Betty Churcher takes us behind the scenes, sharing with us her passion and insights. From her unique vantage point, she makes intriguing connections between a range of different objects and artists, linking them to the stories that surround them.

These are fascinating tales—about the works themselves, the people who created them and the challenge of preserving them—and a tantalising look at some of the ideas and influences that have shaped modern art across the globe.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full program credits

Curriculum Focus


Students are required to reflect critically on meanings and values associated with particular visual artworks. They use the language and terminology to analyse the style, technique, subject matter and design of artworks.

This is a guide only. Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information


At the Grosvenor School of Art in London in the late 1920s, English artist Claude Flight taught printmaking with near-missionary zeal. By promoting cheap, mass-produced linocuts, made from ordinary household linoleum, he championed the democratisation of art. 'A work of art’, said Flight, 'should cost little more than a cinema ticket’.

He urged his students to seek and express the rhythms of early 20th century life—the machine age.
Among his pupils were three enterprising young Australian women: Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers. Together they introduced Australia to a particular brand of modernism, based on the linocut and devoted to conveying the dynamics of movement through line and colour.
When Spowers and Syme returned to Melbourne, they became founding members of the Contemporary Art Group. However, Spowers was forced to give up her artistic career in the late 1930s due to illness. When she died of cancer in 1947, her close friend and artistic companion Syme stopped making prints.

All three were part of that inspiring circle of women who left Australia between the two world wars to become part of the collective experiment of European modernism. But the Second World War seemed to put an end to the utopian dream of modern art for the masses through affordable prints. And today a linocut by one of these leading lights would cost a good deal more than a cinema ticket!

Classroom Activities

  1. Discuss the ways in which early modernism represented a break from the previously accepted traditions for landscape and portraiture genres.
  2. In the 1929 Dorrit Black returned to Australia from London and Paris. In 1931 she established the Modern Art Centre in Sydney. Research and discuss the following:
    1. What were her influences?
    2. What and who inspired her?
    3. In what ways was she unique in her artistic activities?
    4. What contributed to her success?
  3. Using the style of images created by Dorrit Black, Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme for inspiration, create lino block prints.
    1. Stylise the design and use three or four colours to complete it.
    2. After the design has been drawn on newsprint, make a tracing of each colour as a separate block and transfer onto lino blocks separately.
    3. After transferring the design use lino tools to cut out everything except the coloured area. Consider registration and inking plate procedures. Follow standard multi-block printing techniques.
    4. As an alternative to creating the imagery for the linocut, graphics software may be used. Digital photographs and images may be arranged and simplified further in tonal dropouts, then transferred onto lino blocks.

Further Resources


C. Deutsher and R. Butler, A Survey of Australian Relief Prints 1900–1950, Deutsher Galleries, Armadale, 1978

J. Burke, Australian Women Artists, 1840–1940, Greenhouse Publications, Collingwood, 1980

H. Topliss, Modernism and Feminism: Australia Women Artists 1900–1940, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1996

Art Gallery of South Australia: Modern Australian Women, paintings and prints 1925 – 1945

Art and Australia back issue, Dorrit Black’s Modern Art Centre

Australian Dictionary of Biography: Eveline Syme

Australian Dictionary of Biography: Ethel Spowers