Margaret Preston / Australia 1875—1963 / Aboriginal still life 1940 / Oil on canvas / Gift of the Godfrey Rivers Trust through Miss Daphne Mayo 1940 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Margaret Preston. Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2020.

Margaret Preston
Aboriginal still life 1940

On Display: QAG, Gallery 12

Margaret Preston’s individual modernist art was based on a strong sense of design and influences of French and Aboriginal art. Preston recognised that Aboriginal art came from a rich, ancient culture, and she studied and wrote about its development. She was the first Australian artist to actively promote the appreciation of Aboriginal art as an independent art form.

In the 1940s, Preston became involved with the New South Wales Anthropological Society, sparking an interest in understanding Indigenous Australian culture, and she began to appropriate Aboriginal motifs and colours in her works. A brave artistic direction at a time when Aboriginal culture was less than revered, Preston’s approach is still controversial, in terms of cultural appropriation. Popular as both an artist and a writer, she espoused the need to develop a sense of nationhood by defining an Australian artistic style that included local Aboriginal artistic traditions.

Aboriginal still life 1940 exemplifies Preston’s approach to her art, and the incorporation of elements of Aboriginal art, as symbols of a nation, and not merely as decorative additions.

Margaret Preston was born in Port Adelaide, South Australia in 1875. She studied realist painting techniques, and it was not until she travelled to Europe that she began to incorporate the flattened, decorative approach of the French post-impressionists, the Fauves, and Japanese woodblock printing.

Preston travelled to London in 1912, and she remained in Europe until 1919 when she married William George Preston (1881—1978) and returned to Australia. They made their home in Mosman, but continued to travel widely, including to New Caledonia, China and south-east Asia.

She wrote and lectured about modern art, and she continued to travel, with her final trip being through Sri Lanka, Africa and India 1956—58. Preston died in 1963, and she became widely recognised for her influence as both a teacher and an artist.