Stepping into NGV’s new show Brave New World, focusing on Australian art and culture in the 1930s, it’s easy to be taken in by the bright optimism of it all. Grace Cossington Smith paints Sydney Harbour Bridge as a towering, glowing beacon of the future. Tourism posters promote Melbourne as the “Seventh city of the Empire”. Bakelite radios, which look like models of Art Deco buildings, blare On the Road to Gundagai. Golden beaches are populated with beautiful people, and cities are thriving.

But scratch the surface and the tourism posters are propaganda pieces promoting Australia as a utopia for whites. The Depression was hitting hard. Indigenous-Australian cultures were being crushed. Some books were banned, including the satire from which the show takes its name. Children lived in slums, and disease was rife. Women had more freedom, but at what cost?

Co-curators Isobel Crombie and Elena Taylor say the show is about teasing out the conflicts of the decade.

“We didn’t want a fluffy show about Art Deco and fashion, but something that really looked at the contested ideas of the decade,” says Crombie.

“It’s a watershed between traditional art and modernism,” adds Taylor. “It’s also a very political time. The rise of fascism, the rise of right-wing movements in Australia, but also the communist party gaining ground. Artists respond to these things.”

“It may look optimistic early on, but a lot of it is asking, what kind of Australia do we want to create?” says Crombie.

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The public image of the woman, for instance, was shifting. It’s not all flappers and femme fatales. Moya Drying’s painting Holly depicts a dour, lonely drunk. Dorothy Thornhill’s Resting Diana is a muscular Amazonian nude.

And that ties into the frank depiction of Australia’s burgeoning nationalism.

“There was a lot of discussion of Australia breeding a new type of human being, which would be forged on beaches,” says Crombie. Take, for example, the photographs of Max Dupain.

Dupain, now regarded as one of our greatest photographers, was establishing his interest in ideal human bodies. It’s no surprise that his photograph Sunbaker was later co-opted as an icon of Australian nationalism. Here, several surreal photographs hint at his social and political concerns. The ghostly form of a pregnant woman is flanked by a classical statue; city streets sleep beneath a giant, mountainous breast. Australia needed to get back to a connection with our bodies, and with the land.

Elsewhere, photographs, paintings and even stained-glass windows of surf lifesavers – the new icons of Australian perfection – take on a militaristic tone, drilling and marching on the beach, brimming with between-the-wars tension.

The decade’s more conservative art portrays Australia as a pastoral arcadia – idyllic farmland is lit by perfect sunlight, and white families picnicking. Across the room, you’ll see how at the same time Indigenous art was being co-opted (and mangled beyond all recognition) by white artists like William Ricketts, who created bizarre sculptures of part-Aboriginal man, part-kangaroo hybrids.

Of course there are leaps of progress as well, from design, like the early modern furniture of Fred Ward, to wonderful examples of fashion, including dresses and millinery. But the show’s biggest success is that it doesn’t dwell on the vintage charm at the expense of the decade’s tensions.

Brave New World: Australia 1930s is at NGV Australia until October 15.