Kings Cross: bohemian Sydney

Comparable with Paris’s Montmatre, Sydney’s Kings Cross - seen by suburban Australia as perpetually crowded day and night, seedy and wicked - was the subject the exhibition, Kings Cross: Bohemian Sydney which focused on the Kings Cross of the 1920s-1970s when it proclaimed its rich Bohemian identity.

Kings Cross - Bohemian Sydney was held at Elizabeth Bay House, which, during the period of 1928-1935 was far from the colonial splendour of today but an artists’ squat providing cheap accommodation for Sydney’s well-known artists and writers. The bohemian lifestyle was the opposite of a conventional nine-to-five job and ideally the artist didn’t have to earn a living. The Cross, with its cafes, became a natural home for bohemians.

Charm School artists like Wallace Thornton and Wolfgang Cardamatis occupied the run-down house and held famous parties in the grand mansion. ’The caretaker who was installed happened to be alcoholic and so turned a blind eye to the squatters and to the wild parties held at Elizabeth Bay House during that period’, said curator Scott Carlin.

Kings Cross, charming, a place of considerable antiquity and one of the most densely populated places on the face of the earth is one of Australia’s most intriguing areas. ’The social freedoms of high-density living close to the city, harbour and eastern suburbs were and still are enjoyed by a diverse group of actors, broadcasters, students, restaurateurs, grog sellers, gamblers, prostitutes and entertainers’, said Scott Carlin. It’s a place where high-density living produced a strange contrast between a sense of community and anonymity.

While the emphasis of the exhibition was on art and the artists of Kings Cross - the former Darlinghurst Gaol became East Sydney Technical College and home of the National Art School in 1921 - the exhibition featured those elements which represented the Cross at the time like the jazz and night clubs, cafes, cinemas, the prostitution controlled by Tilly Devine, the first Gay Mardi Gras which began (with police arrests) in the Cross and the names synonymous with the Cross, Abe Saffron and Juanita Nielson.

Memorabilia from Kings Cross and over 60 important artworks from the Charm School artists plus the work of William Dobell, Donald Friend, Rosaleen Norton, known as the ’witch of the Cross’, Adrian Feint, Russell Drysdale, Herbert Badham and Martin Sharp among many others was included. ’Much of the work was from private collections so had not been seen before’, said Scott Carlin.

Kings Cross - Bohemian Sydney re-created the 1940s and 1950s feel of the house as artists’ digs, mainly using display stands modelled on easels to mount the works and link the various rooms in the house together.

31 May 2003 - 21 September 2003

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