Margaret Preston, one of Australia’s great modernists, is best known for her portraits of flowers. She painted few portraits of people, noting that she gave it up because people used to ‘grumble at their likenesses’. The year before painting Flapper she completed a dramatic portrait of uncomplaining banksias with a similarly restricted palette and composition of bold, simplified shapes.
Despite her misgivings about more conventional portraiture, Preston advocated that women should paint good portraits as proof that they think for themselves. When she painted her thoughtful Self-portrait 1930 (AGNSW) she was the only woman and only modernist commissioned by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales to paint a self-portrait. It was confirmation of her growing reputation in the 1920s and she was thrilled to be asked.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century Preston had travelled and studied in Europe. She was inspired by the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition organised by Roger Fry in London and by the Japanese print tradition of ukiyo-e. In the 1920s she was advocating an Australian ethos and in 1927 an issue of Art in Australia was dedicated to her work. By 1928 when she painted her striking Flapper she was distilling aspects of what she had learnt and pushing herself further.
The model for Flapper was Myra, Preston’s maid. She looks out directly as if posing for the camera. At the time she would, of course, have been looking at Preston: face to face, artist and subject enmeshed in each other’s gaze. It has been noted that Myra is not quite flash enough in her homely attire of woollen dress and knitted tights to be a bohemian flapper of the 1920s. Firmly anchored in the composition, she doesn’t appear as a shrinking violet either but rather as a self-possessed young woman.
The artist and sitter had come to know one another well and we might surmise that they discussed what Myra would wear for her sittings. Perhaps she had recently bought the lovely cloche hat, a common item of a flapper’s apparel, setting the tone for the painting. The brim of the hat is pulled down to reveal only a glimpse of her up-to-date bobbed haircut, while the jaunty feathers animate the composition. Ultimately, as a painter of modern life, Preston reveals young rosy-cheeked Myra as an aspirational flapper in a thoroughly modern painting.
 Margaret Preston, quoted by C Moore in D Edwards, Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 2005, p 148.
 Preston, as above. Through the 1920s the trustees commissioned 11 artists to paint self-portraits, including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Hans Heysen and Sydney Long.
 R Butler, submission to the National Gallery of Australia’s Council, 8 March 1988.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010