Margaret PRESTON, Flapper Enlarge 1 /2
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Margaret PRESTON

Port Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 1875 – Mosman, New South Wales, Australia 1963

  • Germany and France 1904-07
  • France, England and Ireland 1912-19

Flapper 1925 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil paint Support: canvas

Primary Insc: Signed and dated l.r., pencil "Margaret Preston/ 1925".
Dimensions: 77.3 h x 58.5 w cm framed (overall) 902 h x 734 w x 60 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased with the assistance of the Cooma-Monaro Snowy River Fund 1988
Accession No: NGA 88.326
Image rights: © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. Licensed by Viscopy

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’.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

Deborah Hart

[1] Margaret Preston, quoted by C Moore in D Edwards, Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 2005, p 148.

[2] 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.

[3] 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

Although the predominant subject in Margaret Preston’s oeuvre was still life, in paintings such as Flapper she proved herself to be a competent portrait painter. The sitter for this work was her maid, Myra Warrell.

The ‘flapper’ was a mass media creation of the 1920s – a bohemian woman with cropped hair, who wore short skirts, smoked cigarettes, drank cocktails and frequented late night parties. The image of a flapper was identifiably part of the modern world, a colourful figure in art and film of the period. Roger Butler has noted, however, that Preston’s young sitter is ‘only partly successful in meeting her role as flapper’:

The wool of her dress is too thick and the detachable collar and cuff and knitted stockings are too practical to be stylish. The Flapper shows the artist’s sophistication set against the young girl’s attempt at sophistication – and this is what makes the artist’s title so appropriate.1

Indeed, what makes the Flapper so striking is Preston’s insight into the desire of the demure young girl to adopt a more daring persona, and her own equally daring approach to painting in the paring away of extraneous detail through the application of bold, flat areas of colour. In the mid-1920s, Preston was also working on woodcuts which similarly employed simplified compositions bounded by broad areas of untextured colour – an approach inspired in part by Japanese prints, which had been a springboard for many innovative artists since the late 19th century. Preston’s work conveys an openness to new possibilities, to a spirit of invention, as the key to the future.

Deborah Hart

1Roger Butler, submission to the Australian National Gallery Council re. purchase of Flapper, 8 March 1988, p.2

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002