A painter and craftworker, Margot Lewers is best known for her abstract paintings produced after 1955. An innovative approach and exploration of different media informed her entire professional life. Born in Sydney to a German father, Adolph Plate, a painter and writer who travelled extensively in the Pacific before his early death in 1913, Margo and her brothers, one of whom was the painter Carl Plate , grew up in an improvised one-parent household. However, their mother, Gilly Plate, gave the children the confidence to believe in themselves and this enabled Margo to embark on a lifelong career as a visual artist and craftworker without formal training. The little art education she did receive consisted of a short period studying drawing, painting and textile design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London (1934) and irregular painting classes with Desiderius Orban in Sydney (1945-50). By the age of 21, Margo had established a studio in Sydney, making and selling a range of craft objects, including pottery, hand-printed fabrics and wooden utensils. With funds from this venture she started a successful commercial pottery business, employing a production potter who worked to her designs. Following her marriage to the sculptor Gerald Lewers in 1933, she travelled to England and Europe. Visits to exhibitions and meetings with artists such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and the art critic Herbert Read introduced her to the ideas underpinning modernism. A commitment to them shaped the direction of all her future work.

Lewers was an admirer of the Bauhaus design movement which she experienced during travels in Germany in 1934. An illustrated article on the Bauhaus had previously appeared in an Australian magazine, “The Home”, in 1 October 1928 Henry Pynor. “Visit old Countries for New Ideas for your Home.” The Home 1 October 1928, pps. 48-49. and her associate Sydney Ancher had travelled in Germany in 1931 and returned home with the same enthusiasm. After Lewers returned to Sydney in 1935 she opened a consultancy design service and shop called Notanda in Rowe Street. The stock included simple hand-made pottery, designed by her or imported from Mexico, bold linoblock-printed fabrics, small, carved wooden sculptures by Gerald Lewers and undecorated timber furniture designed with strong flowing lines. She combined the Arts and Crafts tradition with a minimalist approach to interior design.

In 1941 Margo was a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society in Sydney. Her active involvement provided the impetus for a shift away from design towards painting. In order to create a feeling of depth and space, she began exploring the relationship of colour and light. She held her first solo exhibition of abstract paintings in 1952 and was soon making a significant contribution to the development of modernism in Sydney. As a leading abstract expressionist painter, she received favourable reviews, won 14 art awards and during the 1940s and ’60s her work was included in major Australian contemporary exhibitions that toured overseas.

Margo also explored other media such as plexiglass, painted fabrics and mosaics, undertaking significant public commissions including mosaic walls and landscaped gardens. After Gerald’s death she completed a relief sculpture for the Reserve Bank, Canberra, based on his model. Her work is represented in all state and national collections

Margo Lewers held a joint exhibition with her husband, the sculptor Gerald Lewers, at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne in 1952. In that exhibition Studio stood out as Margo’s most accomplished work in geometric abstraction. This watercolour is characteristic of the painting style known as geometric constructivism, a mode of painting based on the principles of dynamic symmetry commonly attributed to the painters Grace Crowley , Ralph Balson and Frank Hinder, leading members of the Sydney Modernist School. The influence of these artists on Margo’s work at this time was significant, as was the work of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, two of the British modernist artists she had met in England in 1934. In particular, Nicholson’s abstract still lifes and painted reliefs of the early 1930s had a profound influence on her later abstract compositions.

After returning to Australia, Margo Lewers studied under the influential teacher and artist Desiderius Orban. He encouraged her to be spontaneous and to adopt a more intuitive approach to colour, line and space. However, it was not until the early 1950s and her involvement and experimentation with constructivism that her paintings successfully synthesised the technical qualities of geometric abstraction with the transparency and luminosity of watercolour. This transitional period was significant in several respects. It shaped her career as a painter and was a major influence for her more mature expressionist and abstract works in the late 1950s and 1960s. Interestingly, Margo’s arrangement of translucent overlays of subdued colour punctuated by a vertical thrust of overlocking diagonal lines and semi-circles evident in Studio later recur in her painted fabrics and coloured plexiglass constructions of the early 1970s.

Studio exemplifies the culmination of Margo Lewers’s early formal study and experimentation with abstraction, with the technical qualities of watercolour painting and the oblique framing of space through drawing. Studio is unlike her earlier geometric compositions of the late 1940s. These preliminary, painterly investigations into formal abstraction were laboured and contrived and her watercolour techniques were not as refined or skilfully executed. It took several years while living at Emu Plains-where she devoted herself to full-time painting-for the transition from academic abstraction to personal iconography to manifest itself. Characteristically, Studio articulates an inner tension and spiritual presence suggestive of stained-glass windows. The painting also symbolises and signals Margo Lewers’s departure from geometric abstraction to abstract expressionism.

Lewers, Darani
Crothers, Tanya
Michael Bogle
Davina Jackson
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