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

Shoalhaven Gorge, N.S.W. 1953 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: prints, stencil, printed in colour inks, from one hand-cut paper stencil Support: thin black cardboard
Manufacturer's Mark: no manufacturer's mark.
Edition State: published state
Impression: undesignated impression
Edition: edition of 3?

Primary Insc: signed and dated lower left on printed image in pen and ink, 'Margaret / Preston / '53'. not titled.
Secondary Insc: no inscriptions.
Tertiary Insc: no inscriptions.
Dimensions: printed image 55.4 h x 46.8 w cm sheet 64.0 h x 51.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1983
Accession No: NGA 83.1320
Image rights: © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. Licensed by Viscopy
  • Private collection, England
  • Purchased by the Australian National Gallery, from Lance Crawford, 1983.
  • Margaret Preston was the leading protagonist for Modernism in Sydney between the wars. In her 1942 article ‘The Orientation of Art in the Post-War Pacific’, Preston argued that, although Australian artists could draw on the art of the country’s Indigenous peoples, ‘it is necessary that they should seek from other sources knowledge and inspiration for their craft, thereby combining to produce a National Australian culture.’1 She foresaw that, at the end of the Second World War, ‘Australia will find herself at a corner of a triangle; the East as represented by China, India and Japan, will be at one point, and the other will have the United States of America representing the West’.2 It was obvious to Preston which direction Australian artists should take after the war. If an artist went to the West to study, that would be ‘Post-War Art done in the easy way. The great danger is that of the artist becoming a copyist.’3 In the post-war era, Preston hoped that Australia would be guided, not controlled, by outside influences, and believed that the East offered artists opportunities to develop mature perceptions of their own country.

    In preparing a lecture on the nature of the Australian landscape, Preston noted ‘the gay setting sun or the sweet morning mists are all accidents of time … droughts are a misfortune but like the sunrise, only temporary. It is the land itself.’4 A 17th-century Chinese painting manual describes hills and streams as embodying ‘the inner law of the universe … [but warns] One cannot attend to the appearance without regard to the inner law, or attend to the substance alone without regard to the method.’5

    Preston’s stencil print, Shoalhaven Gorge, produced 11 years later in 1953 when the artist was 78 years old, is one of her most complete syntheses of Chinese and Aboriginal concepts, brought together to achieve what she termed a uniquely Australian national art. Preston chose the stencil process for this print, a technique which had been introduced to the West from China. It was also an ancient art practised by the Aboriginal people who used it to produce hand prints on cave walls. Similarly, the use of thick opaque browns, whites and ochres and the dotted application of the paint is derived from Aboriginal bark painting.

    Human habitation has no place in this timeless depiction of the Australian landscape. The physical features of the landscape are ambiguously rendered as massed shapes which can be read as a flat plane, or a waterfall over a gigantic cliff, or a river valley. The never-ending geological forces which form the landscape – earthquakes, upheavals and slow erosion – are all acknowledged. The flat black of the cardboard, onto which the stencil has been worked, sometimes appears to define the structure of the landscape while at others it evokes the blackness of infinity, the Dreamtime, the void into which all eventually return, before being reborn.

    Roger Butler

    1Margaret Preston, ‘The Orientation of Art in the Post-War Pacific’, Sydney: Society of Artists, 1942, p.7-9

    2Roger Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1987, p.46.

    3Margaret Preston, op.cit., p.9

    4Margaret Preston (notes for a lecture), inscribed in a notebook, a photocopy of which is included in the Margaret Preston Papers, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

    5Lin Yutang, The Chinese Theory of Art, London: Panther Art, 1969, p.156

    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