When we think of exciting modern art in 2017, we might look at something like GOMA’s Sugar Spin exhibition. Throughout summer, grown-ups and kids alike have whooshed down giant slides and taken selfies in front of big furry walls as part of the delightfully interactive, over-the-top art show.

But just across the forecourt, in the Queensland Art Gallery building, a new exhibition has been taking shape that documents a very different style of modern art. The movement that would come to be known as modernism would later pave the way for the concepts of abstraction and interpretation that have dominated much of modern art since. But at the time, in the early 20th century, it was nothing short of a revolution. Helping spearhead it outside of Europe were three formidably talented women: American Georgia O’Keeffe and Australians Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith.

Ço-curator for O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism Kyla McFarlane says definining modernism is difficult, but it is largely understood against the previous popularity of naturalism and realism. “Artists were trying to think about new ways to represent scenes and objects and not just replicating what they saw in front of them,” McFarlane says.

Making Modernism is an exhibition of paintings, mostly oil on canvas, some woodcut. The density of colour in all the works is striking, but especially in O’Keeffe’s. It invites you to look closer and see how the artist interoperates the natural world around her. Like the way the light moves across Storm Cloud, Lake George, creating the movement of the clouds and the water.

Landscapes feature prominently in all three artists’ work. It’s one of the many similarities between them, though they never communicated or worked together. “They all started working at the same time [in the 1910s and 1920s] and they really focused on the still life as a form, but also just used that form as a laboratory to experiment and turn it on its head,” McFarlane says. “They were all deeply engaged with colour theory, composition and questions of form, though they all had very individual styles.”

It’s surprising to learn that such a cohesive exhibition was not originally conceived with these three artists in mind. Jason Smith, then curator at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne (a partner in the exhibition), kick-started the project when looking at bringing some of O’Keeffe’s work to Australia. Smith wanted to highlight the intersecting relevance between O’Keeffe and Australian modernism. “They started off thinking that it might be O’Keeffe with quite a number of Australian modernist artists,” McFarlane says. “But then they realised that putting her work next to Cossington Smith and Preston created a really interesting conversation.”

Paintings by Preston and Cossington Smith are the first you see on entry, with each artist occupying one half of a room separated by a wall. Seen all together, their work takes a holistic view of the Australian environment. On Preston’s side, native flowers bursting from European-style vases turns to Australian Aboriginal-art-style landscapes, and cold still lives representing the industrial age (Preston’s use of Aboriginal styles in her work has since become one of the more contentious parts of her legacy).

On the other side of the room, Cossington Smith’s work seems more optimistic about the advent of technology and industry. She spent a lot of time looking at the rise of the city and the effect on lifestyles. The most obvious are her dynamic portraits of the construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

McFarlane says themes of national identity are built through the collection as a whole. “Preston is engaged in thinking about what it means to be an artist working in Australia, as O’Keeffe was in America. In the time O’Keeffe was painting there was this nationalistic drive for artists to make the next great American painting or great American novel.”

You can see that in the scale of O’Keeffe’s Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory – a painting that represents a kind of American desert spirit and individualism in both its subject and its stark composition.

O’Keeffe’s own individualism, ambition and wit can be seen in an excerpt of Georgia O’Keeffe (1977), the only authorised documentary about the artist, screened as part of the exhibition.

Walking through this exhibition, you get a sense of how each artist made depictions of flowers or landscapes seem radical; themes and techniques that have carried through to the art of today. Does that make these paintings as exciting as a giant slide? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism runs until June 11 at the Queensland Art Gallery.