(Australia, England, France 29 Apr 1875–28 May 1963)
51.0 x 45.8cm stretcher; 66.7 x 61.5cm frame
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
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (Curator), dOCUMENTA (13): the book of books, Ostfildern, 2012, 712 (colour illus.).
'Margaret Preston' by Deborah Edwards, pg. 103-107., Art and Australia (Vol. 43, No. 1) Sep 2005-Nov 2005, Sep 2005-Nov 2005, 106 (illus.), 107.
Deborah Edwards (Australia) (Author), Margaret Preston, Sydney, 2005, 207, 210, 212, 213 (colour illus.).
Margaret Preston: Catalogue raisonné of paintings, monotypes and ceramics 2005, 2005, (colour illus.). Artworks: paintings 1940.
'Margaret Preston: reviewing the landscape' by Deborah Edwards, pg. 19-23., Art Monthly Australia Dec 2002-Feb 2003, Dec 2002-Feb 2003, 20.
Deborah Edwards (Australia) (Author), Hetti Perkins (Australia) (Author), Rose Peel (Australia) (Author), Australian Collection Focus: Margaret Preston The brown pot 1940, I lived at Berowra 1941, Grey day in the ranges 1942, Sydney, 2002, 2 (colour illus.), 4, 7-9, 13, 15.
Katrina Cashman (Australia) (Author), Margaret Preston in Mosman, Mosman, 2002. not paginated
'Year in review', pg. 8-25., Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 2002 2002, 2002, 15.
'Preston's Aboriginal inspiration: how Margaret Preston was influenced by Aboriginal art', pg. 16-17., Look Sep 2001, Sep 2001, 16 (colour illus.), 17.
Angela Woollacott (b.1955) (Author), To try her fortune in London: Australian women, colonialism, and modernity, New York, 2001, 179 (illus.).
Nicholas Thomas (Australia) (Author), Possessions: indigenous art / colonial culture, London, 1999, 126 (illus.), 137, 139, 295. illus.no. 74
Older Australians: A Positive View of Aging 1994, 1994, cover (illus.).
'A new frontier: the Avant-Garde'., Art & the West 1987, 1987, (colour illus.). AUS 5 card.
Elizabeth Butel (Author), Nicholas Draffin (Australia, b.1943, d.1995) (Researcher), Margaret Preston: the art of constant rearrangement, Ringwood, 1985, 57 (colour illus.), 86. cat.no. O.14
William Kelly (United States of America; Australia, b.1943) (Author), Heritage of Australian art: reflections on the history of Australian painters and paintings, Melbourne, 1984, 34 (colour illus.).
Ian North (New Zealand; Australia, b.1945) (Author), The art of Margaret Preston, South Australia, 1980, 27 (colour illus.), 49 (illus.). cat.no. O.31
Humphrey McQueen (Author), The black swan of trespass: the emergence of Modernist painting in Australia to 1944, Sydney, 1979, 154 (illus.).
Robert Lindsay (Australia, b.1945) (Author), Aspects of Australian Art: Art Gallery of New South Wales travelling art exhibition 1976, Sydney, 1976, (illus.). cat.no. 30; not paginated
'Aboriginal art as art' by Daniel Thomas., Art and Australia [vol. 13, no. 3] Jan 1976-Mar 1976, Jan 1976-Mar 1976, 282-282 (illus.).
'An enemy of the dull' by Humphrey McQueen., Hemisphere [vol. 20, no. 8] 1976, 1976, 37 (illus.).
'Margaret Preston' by Hal Missingham., Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly [vol. 5, no. 2] Jan 1964, Jan 1964, 179 (illus.).
National Council of Women (Australia), An exhibition of women's achievements in the arts, New South Wales, 1960. cat.no. 30; Kindly lent by the AGNSW
Hal Missingham (Australia, b.1906, d.1994) (Author), Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists: Travelling Art Exhibition 1953, Sydney, 1953, 6. cat.no. 15
'Picture for Art Gallery' by Our Art Critic, pg. 7, The Sydney Morning Herald 31 Mar 1942, 31 Mar 1942, 7.
National Art Gallery of New South Wales (Australia, estab. 1874), Margaret Preston and William Dobell loan exhibition, Sydney, 1942, 10. cat.no. 51
Margaret Preston and William Dobell loan exhibition (1942), Art Gallery of New South Wales, 19 Mar 1942–16 Apr 1942.
Travelling Art Exhibition 1953. Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists, Church of England Parish Hall, 16 Mar 1953–30 Mar 1953.
Travelling Art Exhibition 1953. Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists, Young Public Library, 14 Apr 1953–28 Apr 1953.
Travelling Art Exhibition 1953. Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists, Bega County Council Exhibition Hall, 19 May 1953–02 Jun 1953.
Travelling Art Exhibition 1953. Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists, Wollongong High School Assembly Hall, 03 Aug 1953–15 Aug 1953.
Travelling Art Exhibition 1953. Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists, Taree Council Chambers, 15 Sep 1953–29 Sep 1953.
Travelling Art Exhibition 1953. Still life and flower paintings by Australian artists, Dubbo Mechanics' Institute, 13 Oct 1953–27 Oct 1953.
Women's achievements in the arts, David Jones' Art Gallery, Sydney, 31 Aug 1960–09 Sep 1960.
Women's achievements in the arts, Tamworth City Gallery, Oct 1961–Jan 1962.
Women's achievements in the arts, Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Apr 1964 -.
Aspects of Australian art: Art Gallery of New South Wales Travelling Art Exhibition 1976, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1976–1977.
The art of Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of South Australia, 23 May 1980–22 Jul 1980.
Australian icons: twenty artists from the collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 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, 29 Sep 2001–03 Feb 2002.
Margaret Preston in Mosman, Mosman Art Gallery, 07 Sep 2002–13 Oct 2002.
Margaret Preston retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 29 Jul 2005–23 Oct 2005.
Margaret Preston retrospective, Queensland Art Gallery, 18 Feb 2006–07 May 2006.
dOCUMENTA (13), Documenta, 09 Jun 2012–16 Sep 2012.