Margaret Preston
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Margaret Preston, Self Portrait, 1930, oil on canvas

Australia Between The Wars

Introduction
Margaret Preston, as she is more commonly known today, is one of Australia's most celebrated female artists. She was also known as 'Rose McPherson,' 'Mad Maggie,' and 'Ratty Sarah'. She was as renowned in her day for her bold and unique artwork as she was for her sharp tongue and uncompromising personality.

Who was she?
Preston was born in Port Adelaide in 1875 as Margaret Rose McPherson. She spent the early years of her life training and studying art at schools in Australia, Munich, Paris and England. While she is most well-known for her wood and linoblock prints, Preston began training under landscape artist, Lister Lister, while still in her teenage years. In the years that followed, she produced etchings, studied pottery and painting, with additional interests in basket weaving, fabric printing and dying. She also experimented with techniques in printmaking which would eventually lead her to high acclaim from art critics and the public alike.

Preston was also an influential teacher of art, taking students for private tuition. This in turn, gave her the financial freedom to pursue her own artistic visions. It was with her students that Preston returned to study in Europe and later the United Kingdom, throughout her early thirties and into her early forties. During her time in Europe, Preston was greatly-influenced by European modernism, the French Post-Impressionists such as Matisse and Cezanne, as well as the Cubist style of Picasso. Strangely enough, it was also in Europe that she would be influenced by Japanese art, which became yet another style that changed the way Preston looked at art and the world.

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'Sydney Heads' 1925 Woodcut print
In 1919 she moved to Mosman after marrying the wealthy manager of Dalton Brothers Ltd, William George Preston. At the time of her marriage, Preston falsified her age on her marriage certificate stating she was eight years younger than she actually was. In what now seems a strategic plan, having appeared to be two years younger than her husband, she relinquished her maiden name, symbolising the beginning of a new direction for herself and her career. Her marriage to the wealthy businessman gave Preston the financial security to concentrate on her art. It also provided her with the opportunity, which she would normally not have had, to have her work so widely promoted in Australia, particularly by Sydney Ure Smith's Art in Australia magazine. This is not to say that Preston's artwork did not rightfully earn its place in Australian history. On the contrary, during the 1920s and 1930s Preston's artworks really began to 'come of age,' being shown in an exhibition in 1925, along with the works of friend and fellow female artist, Thea Proctor.


It was during this time that Preston really established her unique Australian style. Her works featured a number of scenic Australian landscapes, particularly harbour views from her home in Sydney's suburb of Mosman. Still-life subjects were also popular for Preston, who chose to focus on native Australian flora and fauna.

Aboriginal art influence became evident in Preston's pieces from the 1920s onwards. It would come to have a significant influence on Preston's work, especially after she moved to their home in the upper Hawkesbury river area of Berowra in 1932. In an unusual combination, Preston also began reading the works of Chinese landscape painters, which resulted in her using the ancient Chinese technique of stencilling. A total of 29 of these prints were featured in an exhibition which Preston held in 1953, showcasing the art of stencilling in conjunction with the traditional styles of Aboriginal iconography.

Even during her later years, Preston travelled the world extensively with her husband. After returning to Mosman, although she was in her seventies, Preston continued to work with the same enthusiasm and creativity of her early days. In 1963, Preston died at the age of 88. She left behind more than 400 prints and a legacy that forever changed the future of Australian art.
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Aboriginal design with Sturt's pea, 1943, Colour Masonite cut


Art Styles and Controversy
The creations of Margaret Preston were unlike those of any other artists of her time. Even today, no artist has been able to parallel her style, or, as been sometimes suggested, no artist has been brave enough to imitate the works of the notoriously fiery woman.

In the second half of her life, in a quest for a national art form which reflected the identity of both the future and past of Australia, Preston's work took a dramatic turn in the direction of Aboriginal imagery. Taking advantage of her move to Berowra and the consequent availability of Australia in its most natural form, Preston used Aboriginal symbols and motifs in conjunction with rich, earthy tones for her pieces. In order to full-embrace this form of Aboriginal art, Preston began to use rough-surfaced masonite to create her prints. She found that she was able to paint directly on to it before printing, saving time and pioneering a new technique.

While French Post-Impressionism, Japanese woodblocks and Aboriginal motifs seem like an odd combination, Margaret Preston managed to unite all three distinctly unique styles into her own art. However, it has not been without controversy. While Preston was an advocate for Aboriginal art in Australia to be viewed more inclusively by Australian society, she herself has been criticised for viewing it as a primitive form which is not comparable to European art. There are a number of people who believe that Preston exploited Indigenous art by ignorantly removing Aboriginal symbols purely for her aesthetic needs, without understanding their meaning or context.

Some people have been described as overly-critical of Preston's art. Regardless of whether her art was considered an exploitation of Indigenous Australians' art, or whether people question how Australia's national artistic identity could be created by employing aspects of Chinese, Japanese and European art, what does matter is the important role her works have played in the making of Australian art history.

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'Flannel flowers' c.1929 Woodblock print

Her Significance and Contribution

Like many great artists, Preston's work has been exhibited more since her death that when she was alive. In 2005, the Margaret Preston Art and Life exhibition was unveiled by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was the largest exhibition ever held of Preston's work. It included more than 180 original works.


During the interwar years Margaret Preston, with her art, her strong opinions and her colourful life, was a commanding figure in the public domain. She became one of the country’s most astute public commentators on the wider cultural issues shaping Australia in the era of its new modernity. Not only a seminal modernist, Preston was the first serious advocate of Aboriginal art. Her promotion and appropriation of Aboriginal art was developed in the context of her conviction that a modern and necessary identity for Australia could only emerge from the inspiration of the art of 'the first Australians', as well as the influence of Asian artistic traditions.

While the incorporation of Aboriginal icons into Preston's work is considered by some to be insensitive and exploitive, it is believed by others to have had a positive influence. Preston, although not the first Australian artist to employ Indigenous symbols, forced mainstream society to face a part of Aboriginal culture at a time when Indigenous people and their beliefs were shunned by white-Australian society.

She was a pioneer of art not only for Australia but also for women. At a time when art had previously been dominated by men, in 1929, she became the first female artist to be commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales to paint a self-portrait. In 1937 she also won a silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition. She also published what has been described as a modernist feminist autobiographical essay titled, From Eggs to Electrolux.


Margaret Preston's art was a celebration of a unique and distinctive Australian culture. Whether or not people agree with her work, or even like it, it cannot be denied that her art is very important to the history of Australia. Much of it was produced in the inter-war years, when Australia was greatly challenged by the Depression. It was also a time when Australia had begun to establish a national identity after World War I following the courage shown by Australian servicemen. Preston joined the quest to establish a national identity in the way that she knew best: artistically.



References

Mason, K.J., Experience of nationhood : modern Australia since 1901, South Melbourne, Cengage Learning Australia, 2010.
Webb, K., Discovering Australian history. Stage 5, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2008.