25. MARGARET PRESTON
Still-Life 1922-23 dates from a critical phase of Margaret Preston’s early career, when the artist consolidated her reputation as a leading exponent of Australian modernism. Having previously exhibited with the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, Preston switched allegiances in 1923 to the more ‘dynamic’ Society of Artists - whose audacious director, Sydney Ure Smith (1887-1949), would become a vital advocate. From 1923, Preston’s paintings and woodblock prints were frequently reproduced in Smith’s publications Art in Australia and The Home, allowing Preston an unprecedented opportunity to popularise her work and articulate her creative vision. Writing in The Home in June 1923, Preston boldly outlined her reasons for becoming ‘a convert to modern art’, asserting that a work of art is modern only when ‘it represents the age it is painted in.’1
Preston’s relationship with the Sydney art establishment of the 1920s was an ambivalent one. By many accounts, she was a veritable force of nature, whose tendency to proselytize on the principles of modern art earned her praise and derision in equal measure.2 Having encountered the vibrant works of Cézanne (1839-1906) and Picasso (1881-1973) while studying in Paris and London a decade earlier, Preston believed Australian art was affected by a dull parochialism entirely out of keeping with the modern age. As Preston wrote, ‘Why does the tobacco-juice art (Vandyck brown) flourish in Australia in preference to the light and colour sect? – Because the appreciation of colour was neatly killed in the Victorian era, and most of the art here has not emerged from that period.’3 Preston’s assertions were echoed in reviews of a 1923 exhibition of Australian art at London’s Royal Academy, ‘widely criticised for its failure not only to demonstrate any distinctive Australian school but also artistic excellence.’4 Having been encouraged to contribute several works to the show by its curator, Sydney Ure Smith, Preston – along with fellow female artist, Thea Proctor (1879-1966) – was singled out by London reviewers as ‘striking “the only modern note”’ of the exhibition.5
Somewhat ironically, Preston’s vision of a distinctively Australian modernist aesthetic owed much to her time abroad. In 1912, Preston attended the landmark Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at London’s Grafton Galleries, curated by the pioneering formalist Roger Fry (1866-1934). Fry’s emphasis upon ‘pure aesthetic sensation’ as derived from the formal elements of line, colour, brushwork and composition is clearly evoked in Preston’s works and writings of the 1920s. In particular, Preston railed against the notion of art as a pale ‘imitation of nature’.6 The challenge for the modern artist would be to construct images ‘that can symbolise […] the meaning of our world as effectively as religious pictures once did for other times.’7
In Still-Life, the flowers’ natural forms are enlivened by Preston’s innate feeling for colour and pattern. The composition is characteristic of Preston’s works of this period, with its central placement of an object within a shallow pictorial plane.8 Preston’s use of colour is also typically harmonious, set within a delicate palette of pastel pinks, blues and verdant greens. In an echo of the traditional ‘gridding up’ method of composition, Preston employs a distinctive blue-and-white chequered background, both as a source of visual interest and a tool of spatial arrangement: it is surely no accident that many of the blooms appear roughly the same size as the squares behind them. The same background appears in Flowers 1922, exhibited alongside the present work in 1923 and now held in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
1. Preston, M., ‘Why I Became a Convert to Modern Art,’ The Home, Sydney, June 1923, vol.4, no.2, p.20
2. Edwards, D., Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, p.9
3. Preston, M., ‘Why I Became a Convert to Modern Art, p.20
4. Edwards, D., Margaret Preston, p.75
5. Ibid., p.75
6. Preston, M., Margaret Preston: Recent Paintings, 1929, new edition, ETT Imprint, Sydney, 2017, n.p.
8. Edwards, D., Margaret Preston, p.68
Catherine Baxendale, PhB (Hons), MA (Art Curatorship)