'Flying over the Shoalhaven River' 1942
© Margaret Rose Preston Estate. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia
Margaret Preston was the leading protagonist for Modernism in Sydney between the wars. She created many still lifes that emphasised strong design and simplified forms.
In her 1942 article 'The Orientation of Art in the Post-War Pacific', Preston argued that, although Australian artists could draw on the art of the country's Indigenous peoples, 'it is necessary that they should seek from other sources knowledge and inspiration for their craft, thereby combining to produce a National Australian culture.' (1) She foresaw that, at the end of the Second World War, 'Australia will find herself at a corner of a triangle; the East as represented by China, India and Japan, will be at one point, and the other will have the United States of America representing the West'. (2) It was obvious to Preston which direction Australian artists should take after the war. If an artist went to the West to study, that would be 'Post-War Art done in the easy way. The great danger is that of the artist becoming a copyist.' (3) In the post-war era, Preston hoped that Australia would be guided, not controlled, by outside influences, and believed that the East offered artists opportunities to develop mature perceptions of their own country.
In her painting of 1942, Flying over the Shoalhaven river, the river lazily meanders between soft hills. As with the Chinese and Aboriginal Art that Preston admired, it was a timeless depiction of space. Ephemeral, ever-changing clouds pass between the viewer and the eternal landscape. This aerial view may have been the result of plane travel, but it is just as likely to have been inspired by her understanding of Aboriginal and Chinese modes of representing the landscape.
In preparing a lecture on the nature of the Australian landscape, Preston noted 'the gay setting sun or the sweet morning mists are all accidents of time ... droughts are a misfortune but like the sunrise, only temporary. It is the land itself.' (4) A 17th-century Chinese painting manual describes hills and streams as embodying 'the inner law of the universe ... [but warns] One cannot attend to the appearance without regard to the inner law, or attend to the substance alone without regard to the method.' (5)
(1) Margaret Preston, 'The Orientation of Art in the Post-War Pacific', Sydney: Society of Artists, 1942, p.7-9
(2) Roger Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1987, p.46.
(3) Margaret Preston, op.cit., p.9.
(4) Margaret Preston (notes for a lecture), inscribed in a notebook, a photocopy of which is included in the Margaret Preston Papers, Art Gallery of New South Wales.
(5) Lin Yutang, The Chinese Theory of Art, London: Panther Art, 1969, p.156
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002
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