Margaret Preston

Margaret Rose Preston (1875-1963), painter and printmaker, was born in Adelaide on 29 April 1875, the elder of two daughters of Prudence (born Lyle) and David McPherson, marine engineer. She was educated at Fort Street School in Sydney and studied art at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and the Adelaide School of Design.

Initially trained in tonal naturalism, she set out to make herself 'the best painter of still-life in the world', supporting herself through teaching art rather than tailoring her work to the art market. By 1904 she was heading for Europe in the company of her friend and fellow artist Bessie Davidson. Proud of her accomplished realism, Preston saw this trip and the study she would undertake as 'finishing lessons'. Their two and a half year stay revolutionised her thinking, if not, for the time being, her practice, as her shock and anger at the moderns she encountered began to chip away at her classical, tradition-bound ideals.

On her return to Adelaide in 1907 she resumed teaching, first in tandem with Davidson and later alone, saving all the while for a further assault on Europe. It was during her second extensive stay there (1912- 19) with her friend Gladys Reynell that the first stage of her mature style evolved. Spurred on by other artists in Paris like the Australian Rupert Bunny, she studied Japanese prints at the Musée Guimet, tapping a new vein of visual expression. She first experimented with lyrical, post-impressionist still-life studies, where saturated colour was allied to simplified design on a flattened picture plane. Living in England during the 1914-18 war, she taught pottery and basket-weaving to shell-shocked soldiers while developing her skills as a colourist. By the time of her marriage to William George Preston in Australia in 1919, she had been studying, teaching and experimenting with her art for almost 30 years. This late and financially secure marriage released her from the need to earn her living and allowed her full rein in developing her art and theories.

Settling in Sydney, where local modernism was a stylish, watered-down variant of the European revolutionary mode, Preston applied her aesthetic to interior decoration, fabric design and even flower arrangement, in addition to painting and printmaking. The Australia she had returned to was an urban society, but one which nonetheless, still saw the landscape and pioneering tradition of the nineteenth century as its most appropriate visual expression. Newly and happily married, freed from financial constraints and in the full authority of her middle age, Preston set about challenging the entrenched traditionalism of Australian art. She narrowed her focus to the 'laboratory table' of still-life itself, harvesting a series of richly decorative and technically adventurous images throughout the 1920s. Characteristic of these was an interest in asymmetry and patterning, the close-up observation of natural patterns and particular flora and an increasing austerity of design allied to colour raised to an intense pitch. Her printmaking was a catalyst in this process, the restrictions of the medium leading her to further distil her ideas. Crafts in general were always important to her, refreshing her for more serious work and allowing a field for experimentation.

Through her relationship with the publisher Sydney Ure Smith she began to air her theories about art, principally in his journals, Art in Australia, The Home and Australia National Journal. Her single urgent plea was for a truly indigenous national art, liberated from 'Grandpa G.Britain' and the threat of internationalism by a study of Aboriginal art. Attracted by the strong design and conceptual nature of Aboriginal art, she travelled widely in Australia to gain first-hand experience, particularly enjoying the art of Central Australia with its widespread use of curvilinear and circular elements. Her friendship with Fred McCarthy, curator of anthropology at the Australian Museum, Sydney, deepened her understanding of the meaning behind Aboriginal art and its function as a highly specialised language to the initiated. But her enthusiasm was beset by contradictions, especially relating to the totemic aspects of this art, which she advised ignoring in any adaption for western artists. Her delight in the rhythms, colours, symbols and mental processes behind Aboriginal art came to have a direct influence on her work. The sumptuous colour of the 1920s was gradually replaced by a more mono-chromatic palette, form was further simplified and a dynamic visual shorthand employed. By the 1940s this style had become her predominant one and remained so until the end of her life, although, as always, she diversified when a new medium or enthusiasm attracted her attention.

Her commitment was punctuated by extensive travel in south-east Asia, China, India, Japan, Europe and the Americas, and she was a consistently controversial figure in artistic circles with her outspoken opinions, competitive nature and dramatic changes of direction. Her work, modestly priced, was popular with both fellow artists and the public and has remained so, having a widespread influence on the contemporary generation of painters. She was arguably the most important artist of the interwar period, both her work and her theories providing fertile ground for speculation.

Elizabeth Butel

Humphrey McQueen The Black Swan of Trespass 1979.