Kate and I went to see the Margaret Preston retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW this afternoon. Although I know more about Australian art than the average Australian and Kate knows a lot more than I do, we were both surprised by Preston’s later work.
Margaret Preston is best known for her still life work of Australian native flowers. The exhibition explains that, as a product of her time, she had strong feelings about Australian independance, evident in her earlier artwork’s emphasis on Australian fauna (banksias in particular).
Although I understand the historical context in which she was painting, there was not a lot to my modern eye, aside from the occasional beautiful work. Although I did really like her works around Mosman.
What really caught my eye was her later work, undertaken in the 1940s and 1950s, when she discovered Aboriginal art through her visits to Central Australia. Although the exhibition notes reflect on her interest in a colonialist kind of way, saying that she looked at the landscape as “unexplored territory” (implicit is the notion that she was just as exploitative as previous artists), I think her contact led to a genuine richness in her work not previously evident.
Although I thought the lines of her early landscape work were too strong to be truly reflective of the Australian landscape, you can see a dramatic learning cure in her later work. What surprised us both most was the similarity of some of her later work to that of Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa), especially since Kate was at the National Art School at the same time as Reg. Although I had a camera on me, I thought it was wrong to even attempt to capture the moment when Reg, himself, viewing the exhibition, looked at the “Adam & Eve” works by Preston. The moment was an incredible one that I hope will remain in my memory for some time to come as “one of those magic moments”.
Neither Kate nor I had any knowledge of this aspect of Preston’s work. Nor had we any idea of the impact it clearly has had, intentionally or not, on one of the country’s most important contemporary artists.
So if you’re thinking Margaret Preston is just lovely flowers, think again. Although most of those attending the exhibition were, as Kate observed, “women of a particular age and a particular class”, there’s a lot more to Preston’s work than you might instantly imagine.