In the mid 1920s Margaret Preston embarked on a personal campaign to establish a national art that was distinctively Australian, arguing that the Indigenous art of Australia offered the ideal basis for such a development. She wrote in Art in Australia in June 1941: ‘The art of the aborigine has for too long been neglected. The attention of Australian people must be drawn to the fact that it is a great art and the foundation of a national culture for this country’. In addition to lecturing and publishing widely on the subject, she incorporated elements from Indigenous art into her own paintings and prints, most notably from the mid 1930s onwards.
Preston’s appropriation was initially undertaken with little regard for or understanding of the cultural and social significance of Indigenous imagery; however, over time her knowledge deepened considerably so that, of the many artists who looked to Indigenous art during the mid-twentieth century, she was one of the best informed and her approach was among the most sophisticated. Fred McCarthy, curator of anthropology at the Australian Museum in Sydney, who Preston met in the early 1930s and who became a close friend, introduced her to the complex layers of ritual and symbolic meaning that make up Indigenous art. Preston and her husband later joined the Anthropological Society of New South Wales and, in 1940, despite the restrictions and difficulties of wartime, travelled to remote areas in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory to view rock art sites.
The results of this first-hand experience and expanding knowledge were realised most clearly in a small group of landscape paintings made between 1940 and 1946, and the related monotypes (unique printed impressions) of 1946–48. While the focus on landscape as subject matter marked a significant shift in Preston’s practice, these works differed radically from her previous output in their adoption of a series of distinctive features that she had observed within Indigenous art; a new palette of ochres, browns and black, the incorporation of pattern (including dots and parallel lines), outlining of forms in black paint and the flattening of pictorial space. Combined with Preston’s long-held interest in Chinese painting and her unique adaptation of modernist principles of composition, these paintings presented a striking new vision of the Australian landscape.
Shoalhaven Gorge, New South Wales uses all of the elements Preston identified in Indigenous art to describe the white water of the gorge snaking through the landscape between hills on the right and a rocky outcrop to the left. While works such as this continued the great tradition of landscape painting in Australia and confirmed the important place of the land itself within contemporary concepts and visual representations of national identity, they also presented a subversive challenge to this tradition. Introducing the ‘feminine’ element of decoration into her paintings, Preston countered the essentially masculine character of the grand pastoral landscapes so characteristic of early twentieth century art. By depicting the landscape through an Indigenous filter, she also, perhaps unconsciously, highlighted the colonial attitudes and history that underpinned such imagery.
Kirsty Grant, Senior Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)