Saturday, July 11, 2015

Margaret Preston[1]
Fine-Art Prints

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Margaret Preston was an Australian artist who was known during the 1920s to 1940s for her modernist works as a painter and printmaker and for introducing Aboriginal motifs into contemporary art.

Australian rock lily (ca. 1936).
Technique: Woodcut and hand colored.

She was born on the 29th of April, 1875 and died on the 28th May, 1963. The images and story behind her work have been aptly summarized by Elizabeth Butel [1]. This post will mainly concentrate on her prints on paper.

Margaret Preston[1]
Margaret Preston was Australia’s foremost woman painter between the wars, a period when many of the best artists were women. Their art was done more for pleasure and for inner necessity than for money or fame.

Margaret Rose Preston (nee MacPherson) during her time as a teacher in Adelaide.

Preston was talented, adventurous and certainly the most vociferous of the women artists. She differed from her compatriots in her more strident demands for recognition – not simply for her own art, but for the many theories she held about Australia’s artistic atrophy. Her single most urgent plea was for a truly indigenous national art for this country, liberated from the United Kingdom and from the threat of internationalism. Her spiritual crusade was informed by her broad and bursting personality and was also an outcome of her tenacity bred in her by experience.

Hollyhocks (1929).
Technique: Woodcut and hand colored.

Many of Australia's women artists from the early part of the twentieth century received financial support from their families and so did not feel the pressure to compete commercially. However, for Preston the story was otherwise. Her itinerant childhood, from Adelaide to Sydney to Melbourne, ended in her mid teens with a return to the city of her birth in 1894 for her sailor father’s final illness and death. While studying at the Adelaide School of Design she began teaching to help support her widowed mother and younger sister, a career that continued long after the death of her mother and marriage of her sister. Preston submitted to the strain of teaching rather than to compromise her art in order to tailor it for the “market”. She wanted - as she wrote in 1927 - to paint her pictures as she would, to choose her own subjects and do them in her own way, leaving all thought of selling out of her mind.

Protea (1925).
Technique: Woodcut and hand painted.

Her determination to see where she stood artistically took her to England and Europe from 1904 to 1907, where her pride in her accomplished realism was shattered by coming face-to-face with modern European art, an experience described in 1927 in “From Eggs to Electrolux”.

“There in that horrid country no one seemed to understand Australian-German, or appreciate Australian art. They were all hopeless. It was even worse for her when she found herself understanding what apparently sane artists and students were saying about a certain picture at a Secessionist Exhibition – a picture that had a large pink dragon, with a lady victim clad in yellow, being rescued by a gentleman in black clothes... They were actually admiring it. It made her feel sick.”

Pansies (1925).
Technique: Woodcut and hand painted.

Overcoming her nausea she sought enlightenment through the study of Japanese art at the Musée Guimer and learnt “slowly that there were more than one vision of art”. Her advances over her Australian contemporaries have, in part, been attributed to her study of this art that directly influenced Post-Impressionism, rather than her analysis of Post-Impressionism itself.

Gums (ca. 1925).
Technique: Woodcut and hand painted.

Returning to South Australia she resumed her teaching and her art practice, saving in that period with the aim to return to Paris. In 1912 she returned to Paris, consolidating her earlier lessons by an eight year stay in England and Europe, which allowed her to experience the fierce, non-realistic color and bold - apparently crude draughtsmanship - of the Fauvists. Precision design was now aided by decorative possibilities of color.

Wheel Flower (ca. 1929).
Technique: Woodcut and hand painted.

Margaret Preston’s invigorating, expressive and powerful art view of “decorative”, was quite different from the vapid, artificial prettiness that has come to be associated with that term.

Anemones (1925).
Technique: Woodcut and hand painted.

Living in England during World War I, she taught pottery and basket-weaving to shell-shocked soldiers at a military hospital on the Devon Moors, all the while developing her skills as a colorist.

Some of the shell-shocked soldiers to whom Preston taught basket-weaving at the Seale-Hayne Neurological Military Hospital, Devonshire (UK).

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 thirty years. This late and financially secure marriage released her from the need to earn her living and allowed her full rein in applying her considerable energies and willpower to develop her art and her theories on art. Settling in Sydney where local modernism was a stylish, pale variant of the European mode, she applied her aesthetic to interior decoration, fabric design and even flower arrangement, in addition to printing and printmaking.

Hakea, Ravensthorpe (ca. 1932).
Technique: Woodcut and hand colored.

The Australia she returned to was an urban society, but one which still saw landscape and pioneering traditions of the nineteenth century as its most appropriate visual expression. Depressed urban workers were led to believe that the bush was a place of healing - away from the diseased life of the city. Furthermore, the bush was regarded as masculine in gender, a place to escape from the ladylike refinements of the city and from women’s challenge to supremacy, which had arisen through freedoms that had come to women during the war.

Magnolia (ca. 1937).
Technique: Woodcut hand colored.

Newly and happily married, freed from financial constraints and in complete command of her artistry, Margaret Preston at middle age set about challenging the bush ethos and the entrenched traditionalism of Australian art. Her attack was vigorous, multifaceted and sustained over the next twenty-five to thirty years. Her work reflects the conviction of a fresh, original mind.

The Hunt (1957-59).
Technique: Woodcut hand colored.

[1]E. Butel, Margaret Preston, Imprint, Potts Point (1995).

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