My Favourite Artwork: Tea cup Ballet


What: Tea cup Ballet

Artist: Olive Cotton

Year: c. 1935

Type: Photographic Print

Medium: gelatin silver photograph

Where: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Why: I first came across the photographs of Olive Cotton during my undergrad with Tea cup Ballet standing out as one of my absolute favourites.  It is also one of her most well-known images and the first of her photographs to be exhibited overseas.  According to Cotton, the picture evolved from a shopping trip to replace the studio’s break room coffee cups.  The angular handles of the cups reminded her of the arm position of ballerinas, thus the idea of a dance themed composition was created.  As an assistant to famed photographer Max Dupain, Cotton was astute in studio practice but it took many attempts with the arrangement to arrive at an image in which she was content.  Using a single spotlight as the light source, she arranged the cups until the shadows created the outcome that she had envisaged.  The result of this experimentation developed into Tea cup Ballet.

I often find that the simplest of objects can deliver the most interesting outcomes in photographs, especially in black and white. While the cups have appealing form, it is the shadows from these vessels that attract me as the viewer.  The angular shape and intense lighting are more keeping to the modernist aesthetic than her portraits or landscapes.  It is this abstraction of the everyday object that captivates, imagining that these cups are indeed dancers twirling around on an imaginary stage.   

– Kylie Macey

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