Dancing with Margaret Preston:
Respecting Margaret Preston’s Vision at Berowra
Study Day Forum, 22nd October 2005, Macquarie University Art Gallery
“Only now are we coming to a fuller appreciation of the nature and role of myth in human history.” “Each of us is a kind of crossroads where things happen.”
~ Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth & Meaning, 1978
I don’t think one ever becomes an artist. You discover that you are one and there is nothing you can do but to continue working. Artists are always curious. It’s what you are curious about and the mediums that you use to explore the questions which are essential to you that will define your work.
I was in my late twenties (1960’s) when I first was stopped in my tracks by the work of Margaret Preston at AGNSW. In that first encounter there was a flash of recognition. Here unusually was a woman artist of great originality of mind and powerful work whose concerns were familiar and relevant to our histories and our understanding of ourselves.
Preston’s The Expulsion, 1952 (from The Garden of Eden) expressed for me a subversive anti-colonial narrative affirming a sympathy for aboriginal experience astonishing for its time. Here she reversed the Christian biblical parable to describe how Aboriginal people were cast out from their own country, by the misuse of Christianity itself. I read this painting as a prescient acknowledgement by Preston of Aboriginal realities. “The bible, the bottle and the gun” were widely named by Aboriginal people as the early tools of their dispossession.
In this paper I draw on understandings gained from two major bodies of work I have pursued during the last thirty years, working with Aboriginal people as The Movement photographer and photographing and exploring the landscape and cultures along the Hawkesbury River. These concerns have much in common with Preston’s and dovetailed into her central concern in creating uniquely Australian Art.
Considering Margaret Preston’s work we encounter one major difficulty. How can we now understand her ideas and her work in the context of her time? I want to avoid the obvious approach which is to judge her from the knowledge base we have in the present. I here lament the lack of understanding and generosity with which some scholars treated Preston both in her own time and even now 50 years later.
The very idea of a non-Indigenous artist truly understanding Indigenous iconography by study, experience and intuition, as in Preston’s case, is still anathema to some scholars, although it is a phenomenon well known among Indigenous people, who recognise and acknowledge it when it occurs. Donald Thompson’s work with the Yolngu is a good example of this during Preston’s lifetime.
Perhaps in some future time when our histories are written beyond the dynamics of defensiveness or advocacy we may finally acknowledge that some close understandings and relationships have always occurred between people from different cultures in this country.
After Preston’s encounters with modernist masters in western art in Europe, including the work of Cezanne, Gauguin and Diego de Rivera, she continued to follow the work of her contemporaries in Europe. But after her return to Australia Margaret Preston was drawn to study Australian Indigenous cultures and their symbolic codes of representation.
In 1923 Margaret Preston stated, “In wishing to rid myself of any country other than my own I have gone to the art of a people who have never known anything different from their own . . . These are the Australian Aboriginals, and it is only from the art of such people in any land that a national art can spring.” (‘Why I became a convert to modern art’, The Home, June 1923)
This was a seminal statement for Preston, one she would repeat in various ways throughout her life.
Sydney Ure Smith famously said “Margaret Preston is the natural enemy of the dull.” For me, there are no ideas in contemporary Australian thinking duller nor more desensitising than notions of political correctness. It is not helpful to encourage people to pay lip service to ideas they have not fully comprehended for themselves. Political correctness is nothing more than intellectual laziness. Nor is it possible I think to gauge the past accurately using the intellectual language of the present.
The way artists show their respect for the work of artists who have come before them, is not to imitate them but to be inspired by them. To suggest that Preston “appropriated” her palette or mode of representation from Aboriginal culture is to miss the point of her work entirely.
Preston’s advocacy of the primary importance of Aboriginal culture in Australian art and identity from the 1920’s onwards was during a time when paternalism toward Aboriginal People via The Dying Race theories of Professor Elkin were at their height of influence. We need to remember that during this time Aboriginal people were invisible to most Australians; they were hidden on reserves, where they were often forbidden from practising their language and their culture. Aboriginal people in many parts of the country maintained their culture in secret despite these brutal policies. So determined were government policies at this time to extinguish Aboriginal cultural knowledge that children were forcibly removed from their families all over the country. They were to be to brought up to live in the white fellas’ world to serve at the lowest level of white society as domestics and low paid stockmen. This was a tragic and shameful period of our country’s history.
Margaret Preston’s focus on the significance of Aboriginal culture during this time was surely immensely visionary and courageous. In placing her study of Aboriginal culture at the centre of influence on her work Preston presented Aboriginal iconography before a wide public. In doing so she went entirely against the intellectual and aesthetic mores of her time. Here Preston signalled a deeper respect towards Aboriginal people and culture than was evident anywhere else at this time.
We also need to remember here that the vast repository of knowledge about Aboriginal culture that is now available to us did not exist in a written form during Preston’s time. Indeed anthropologic studies were in their infancy and were sometimes contaminated with prevailing theories which did not serve understanding of the complexity of Aboriginal cultures well.
Preston’s friendship with anthropologist Fred McCarthy from The Australian Museum is often noted. I was suprised to find in my library a heavily annotated copy of McCarthy’s publication Australian Aboriginal Decorative Art, published in 1966. McCarthy, after his tenure at The Australian Museum, became the Principle of The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra.
To indicate the language used at this time I quote from this publication: Elkin states in his Foreword, “I welcome this study of Australian aboriginal decorative art. For some years now we have been concentrating on Australian social organisation, economics and totemism. Now that we have a better understanding of these matters, we should turn our attention to aboriginal art, for the purpose not only of classifying, describing and grouping it, but also of relating it to those other aspects of native life . . . we have been learning during recent years that the designs on some mundane objects shields, shell pendants and others also belong to the sacred world of mythology.”
McCarthy’s language and approach is quite different. “The Australian aborigines have not been credited with as high a standard and appreciation of art as they in truth possess, especially when they are compared with the neighbouring peoples of the Pacific.” Discussing a shield, McCarthy states, “The graceful bow shaped shields which bear these designs are particularly ornate examples of the work of the aboriginal carftsman: the incised patterns suit perfectly the general form of the weapon. The surface of many shields, particularly those of the Murray River, is divided into panels separated by plain longitudinal stripes of the smooth surface, which may be traversed or diagonal or may form a cross within the panel. The patterns, usually symmetrical in principal, but not always in detail, are ingenious in their wealth of new arrangements, a feature of Australian Aboriginal art which illustrated well the ample scope for the individuality of the artist.”
While sometimes tentative in his description, McCarthy’s publication contains a great deal of information, analysis and description of ceremonial and daily used utensils and their decoration from around the country. Clearly in Preston he found a most appreciative student and companion.
W. B. Stanner’s publication in the 1950’s, “On Aboriginal Religion”, for me began a deeper understanding from this emerging of study.
It was not only Aboriginal people and culture but the land itself that was anathema to most Australians during Preston’s lifetime. I recall as a child in the 1950’s there was a general hostility towards the bush.
Kangaroo, by D.H. Lawrence, was published in 1923. In Kangaroo one of his characters declares, “Most Australians come to hate the Australian earth before they’re done with it. If you call the land a bride, she’s the sort of bride not many of us are willing to tackle. She drinks your sweat and blood, and then as often as not lets you down, does you in.” Yet Lawrence himself was clearly moved by the bush, he spoke of the importance of “spirit of place”. In his letters he often described the great and strange beauty he saw in the Australian bush. For example he described gymea lilies as “great flowers, twelve feet high, like sticky dark lilies in bulb buds at the top of the shaft, blood red.”
D.H. Lawrence, Enda Wallings, The Jindgwarrabaks: a group of artists and intellectuals were turning towards the bush, opening their eyes to its unique beauty and power.
For Margaret Preston it was her seven years in Berowra from 1931-1938 where her search to understand the Aboriginality of the country became her primary experience, living as we can now say in Durag/Kurringai country.
Preston’s personal experience of country and of Aboriginal ceremonial life deepened considerably during her years at Berowra, where she lived in such close proximity to major rock carvings she is known to have visited regularly. Here at Berowra, living with the land itself, walking ancient tracks by sacred sites, rock carvings and waterholes, observing the seasonal changes in the bush, all this would affect her in the course of her daily life.
I have lived on the Hawkesbury River for 18 years. What is unique about the River country is that much of it is as it was 205 years ago and for centuries before that. It is undisturbed country and the reminders of Aboriginal occupation are everywhere. The old tracks, shell middens, sacred rock carvings and ceremonial sites were on Preston’s track whenever she stepped out. Just down from her house by the creek, important Aboriginal carvings were to be found. In the fifteen acres of land surrounding her house, the native flowers in all their seasons were available to her experience and observation. Walking along the ancient tracks on the escarpment above Berowra Creek and Calabash Bay, aerial views of the river spread out before her. Mick Glasheen and I made a bush camp on this same site during April and May this year preparing for this exhibition.
During 1998 I worked with Aboriginal historian Frances Peters-Little on a project which resulted in the exhibition Our Community, currently showing at National Museum of Australia. In her research paper for AIATSIS for this project, Frances raised this important question: “Where does sacredness reside? Does it reside in the land or in the people?”
River dwellers are affected by the river currents, the continuous movement of the tides, the mists arising in winter we call The Serpent’s Breath, particular quality of cloud formations which are inspected daily along with the strength of the winds. River dwellers continually read the River country.
Working towards the book The Language of Oysters between 1985-1995, I travelled the River with the decentness of families who had lived on the River for seven generations. The way they read the country struck me as similar to the way I have seen Aboriginal people read it, even to notions of custodial care for the River’s wellbeing. If sacredness resides in the land itself, and one is open to discovering its meaning, then surely it seeped into Margaret Preston’s consciousness during her seven years at Berowra. The effect of this experience would have stayed with her for the rest of her life.
Preston stated in a magazine article in 1942, “Aboriginal Art represents not the objects alone from which it is drawn, but with the essential truths which may or may not be visible to the human eye.”
D.H. Lawrence once described genius as “the ability to absorb.”
It is the fact that Preston could bring together her experience of country, her study of the Aboriginal iconography and the modernists concerns in her work which marks her genius.
Viewing “Aboriginal Landscape”, “I lived at Berowra”, and “View over Shellhaven” we find a unique visual language that is Preston’s signature.
Andrew Sayers states, “Despite the apparent superficiality of its use of an Aboriginal palette, ‘Flying over the Shoalhaven River’ contains ideas which make it one of the most important paintings of the 1940’s in Australia . . . yet ‘Flying over the Shoalhaven’ owes as much to Chinese art which Preston embraced after her visits to China in 1926 and 1934. Futhermore, this is the first Australian painting which reveals the formal elements of the Australian landscape as seen from the air: the experience of flying has revealed a completely new sense of the structure of the landscape the obsession of Australian artists since the 1920’s.” (Oxford History of Australian Art p146-7)
Margaret Preston was not simply an adventurous traveller; she continued to study the art of ancient cultures and their symbolic codes of representation for the rest of her life. Not only in Australia but in Papua New Guinea, The Pacific Islands, Fiji , New Zealand, Japan and China. This ongoing inquiry continued as a primary influence on her subject matter, her palette and her techniques.
Acknowledging this about Margaret Preston, I think, is key to understanding her.
I think we can also consider the possibility that when an artist so passionately advocates a cause through her work, as Preston did with Aboriginal design, her own art may sometimes suffer. I think we see evidence of this in some of Preston’s later works.
Scholars research to prove a linear argument. Artists, on the other hand, enter a conversation with the work of artists who have gone before them. Being inspired by the work of earlier artists is the highest form of respect one artist can give another.
My friend Richard Bell won the Telstra Award 2003 with a witty work entitled “Aboriginal Art is a White Thing.” In this typically provocative work Bell pays homage to Jackson Pollock.
Does anyone seriously want to accuse Bell of appropriation in this work? I don’t think so. Nor should such an accusation be made of Margaret Preston.
In Preston’s visionary search for an original visual vocabulary for her art as Australian Art, she was determined to understand and image this country in its uniqueness and its antiquity.
This was at her quest’s centre. In pursuing this vision she went completely against the intellectual current of her time. I feel it is time now in this place that we honour her for her courage and her vision. No “mad Maggie” was she.
21st October 2005
For details of the full program of events associated with Berowra Visions, download this brochure (280KB pdf file) or visit the Macquarie University Art Gallery site.
MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY
Building E11A, Macquarie University, North Ryde
5 September – 31 October 2005
Gallery hours: 10am – 5pm Monday to Saturday