Without the footnote of its accompanying lid, the homely brown pot would almost appear to be painted as if in a state of suspended animation, an unlikely proposition of weightlessness given its sturdy and unremarkably utilitarian form. This is the first of many curiosities that lie at the heart of the enigmatic appeal of this 1940 work by Margaret Preston. Shadowing cast in opposition to the light emanating from a hidden source to the left of the frame implies a mirror-like surface upon which the pot and lid rest – perhaps of highly polished wood, given the furnishing predilections of the time. Yet it offers a bizarre reflection, or refraction, of reality. Even the 'crazy-paving' glazing on the brown pot is answered by red banding, also at odds with the palimpsest background of cuboid colour.
'The brown pot' contains no delicate bouquet of blushing blooms; these are banksias, the tough native flowers that survive and thrive along the wooded coastal fringes of Australia's eastern coast. Preston lived for a time at Berowra, an idyllic Hawkesbury River community surrounded by bushland some 40km north of Sydney, where banksias proliferate. With spiky-leaved accents and sculpturally arthritic branches, the artfully haphazard floral arrangement appears to embody a wartime patriotic domesticity at its most grassroots level – in the home, and in this instance in the very comfortable middle-class of Sydney's lower North Shore. A domesticity as unpretentious as using a lidded jar for a vase. It could be considered a fine example of artistic propaganda, a kind of painterly call to arms to instil a nationalistic pride in one's homeland. Like a previous generation of passionate Australian pastoral painters, Preston advocates a pervasive appreciation and embracing of Australiana, in this case the use of cut native flowers in the home, or on another level, the introduction of distinctively Australian themes to the sacrosanct artistic canon of the still life.
'The brown pot' stands out amongst Preston's works of the period that reveal her deepening engagement with Aboriginal art, before her viewpoint capsizes under the weight of the Aboriginal spirituality she introduces into her oeuvre. The stylised brushes of the flowers and the decorative patchwork background, overlaid with flecks of colour, are key pieces of the puzzle. The emphasis is not naively realist representation but an attempt to articulate a Euro-Aboriginal visual language, a panoptic 'National Art'. Quite subversively for the time, Preston's agenda was the infiltration of 'native' art into the domestic and fine arts. And, unlike others who followed her, she focused on Australia's unique cultural inheritance rather than employing Indigenous art as one of many world cultures apparently viewed as fair game in the amoral world of modernist appropriation.
Knowing Preston's persistent and well-documented interest in and advocacy for Aboriginal art informed by her travels throughout Australia, this work at first reading suggests the aesthetic influence of the boldly decorated Queensland rainforest shields or the distinctive Tiwi visual schema – dots and dashes offset by blocks of rich, earthy colour. And while it offers a visually harmonious synthesis, to Aboriginal eyes it reads as a scrambled orthography of vaguely familiar words, or a discordant symphony where the notes don't ring quite true. Preston's passionate attempts, while well intentioned, were doomed to fail ultimately because they are meaningless to Aboriginal people – not unlike the contemporaneous government policy of assimilation.
The references, however, were blatant enough for Aboriginal artist Trevor Nickolls to return the compliment almost half a century later with the work 'Homage to Margaret Preston' 1988, also in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This painting is similarly composed of native flowers embellished by abstracted quasi-Aboriginal symbolism. In coinciding with Australia's bicentenary, the execution of this painting perhaps notes the very late maturation of the Australian art world in engaging with Aboriginal cultural expression as art, and quite rightly acknowledges Preston's pioneering role and prescient vision. The riddle Preston posed remains as yet unsolved at the opening of the 21st century.
Hetti Perkins in Deborah Edwards and Rose Peel with Denise Mimmocchi, 'Margaret Preston', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005
oil on canvas
51.0 x 45.8 cm stretcher; 66.7 x 61.5 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed l.l., pencil "Margaret Preston/ (illeg.)". Not dated.
Not on display
© Margaret Rose Preston Estate
Where the work was made
Shown in 11 exhibitions
Margaret Preston and William Dobell loan exhibition (1942), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 19 Mar 1942–16 Apr 1942
Travelling Art Exhibition 1953. Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists:
- Church of England Parish Hall, Grenfell 16 Mar 1953–30 Mar 1953
- Young Public Library, Young 14 Apr 1953–28 Apr 1953
- Bega County Council Exhibition Hall, Bega 19 May 1953–02 Jun 1953
- Wollongong High School Assembly Hall, Fairy Meadow 03 Aug 1953–15 Aug 1953
- Taree Council Chambers, Taree 15 Sep 1953–29 Sep 1953
- Dubbo Mechanics' Institute, Dubbo 13 Oct 1953–27 Oct 1953
Women's achievements in the arts:
Aspects of Australian art: Art Gallery of New South Wales Travelling Art Exhibition 1976, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1976–1977
The art of Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 23 May 1980–22 Jul 1980
Australian icons: twenty artists from the collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 04 Aug 2000–03 Dec 2000
Australian Collection Focus: Margaret Preston The brown pot 1940, I lived at Berowra 1941, Grey day in the ranges 1942, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 29 Sep 2001–03 Feb 2002
Margaret Preston in Mosman, Mosman Art Gallery, Mosman, 07 Sep 2002–13 Oct 2002
Margaret Preston retrospective:
dOCUMENTA (13), Documenta, Kassel, 09 Jun 2012–16 Sep 2012
Sydney Moderns, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 06 Jul 2013–07 Oct 2013
Referenced in 26 publications
Aboriginal art', Look, 'Preston's Aboriginal inspiration: how Margaret Preston was influenced, pg. 16-17, Melbourne, Sep 2001, 16 (colour illus.), 17.
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 2002, 'Year in review', pg. 8-25, Sydney, 2002, 15.
Elizabeth Butel, Margaret Preston: the art of constant rearrangement, Ringwood, 1985, 57 (colour illus.), 86. cat.no. O.14
Katrina Cashman, Margaret Preston in Mosman, Mosman, 2002. not paginated
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (Curator), dOCUMENTA (13): the book of books, 'Participants, biographies, and exhibited objects and works', pg. 674-725, Ostfildern, 2012, 712 (colour illus.).
Our Art Critic, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Picture for Art Gallery', pg. 7, Sydney, 31 Mar 1942, 7.
Judith Davis, Older Australians: A Positive View of Aging, Sydney, 1994, cover (illus.).
Deborah Edwards, Art Monthly Australia, 'Margaret Preston: reviewing the landscape', pg. 19-23, Canberra, Dec 2002-Feb 2003, 20.
Deborah Edwards and Rose Peel, Margaret Preston: Catalogue raisonné of paintings, monotypes and ceramics, Sydney, 2005, (colour illus.). Artworks: paintings 1940.
Deborah Edwards, Art and Australia (Vol. 43, No. 1), 'Margaret Preston', pg. 103-107, Sydney, Sep 2005-Nov 2005, 106 (illus.), 107.
Deborah Edwards, Australian Collection Focus: Margaret Preston The brown pot 1940, I lived at Berowra 1941, Grey day in the ranges 1942, 'An art for Australia, from Australians', pg. 3-9, Sydney, 2002, 2 (colour illus.), 4, 7-9, 13, 15.
William Kelly, The art of Margaret Preston, 'Introduction', pg. 4-7, South Australia, 1980, 27 (colour illus.), 49 (illus.). cat.no. O.31
William Kelly, Heritage of Australian art: reflections on the history of Australian painters and paintings, Melbourne, 1984, 34 (colour illus.).
Robert Lindsay., Aspects of Australian Art: Art Gallery of New South Wales travelling art exhibition 1976, 'Margaret Preston', Sydney, 1976, (illus.). cat.no. 30; not paginated
Terence Maloon and Ursula Prunster, Art & the West, 'A new frontier: the Avant-Garde', Sydney, 1987, (colour illus.). AUS 5 card.
Humphrey McQueen., Hemisphere [vol. 20, no. 8], 'An enemy of the dull', Australian Capital Territory, 1976, 37 (illus.).
Humphrey McQueen, The black swan of trespass: the emergence of Modernist painting in Australia to 1944, Sydney, 1979, 154 (illus.).
Denise Mimmocchi, Sydney moderns: art for a new world, 'Still-life as laboratory table', pg. 198-213, Sydney, 2013, 208 (colour illus.), 315, 323.
Hal Missingham., Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly [vol. 5, no. 2], 'Margaret Preston', Sydney, Jan 1964, 179 (illus.).
Hal Missingham, Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists: Travelling Art Exhibition 1953, Sydney, 1953, 6. cat.no. 15
National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Margaret Preston and William Dobell loan exhibition, Sydney, 1942, 10. cat.no. 51
National Council of Women, An exhibition of women's achievements in the arts, New South Wales, 1960. cat.no. 30; Kindly lent by the AGNSW
Hetti Perkins, Margaret Preston, 'The Brown Pot', pg. 212, Sydney, 2005, 207, 210, 212, 213 (colour illus.).
Daniel Thomas., Art and Australia [vol. 13, no. 3], 'Aboriginal art as art', Sydney, Jan 1976-Mar 1976, 282-282 (illus.).
Nicholas Thomas, Possessions: indigenous art / colonial culture, 'Artworks: indigenous signs in colonial art', pg. 126-163, London, 1999, 126 (illus.), 137, 139, 295. illus.no. 74
Angela Woollacott, To try her fortune in London: Australian women, colonialism, and modernity, New York, 2001, 179 (illus.).