ART - AUSTRALIAN - MARGARET PRESTON - CATALOGUE ESSAY
traps’ is best understood as one panel in a triptych depicting wartime
Sydney. The conceptual center would be ‘Submarine Exhibition’ (1942)
where an armed sailor guards one of three Japanese midget submarines
which had penetrated the Harbour in May 1942. Notices warn: “DO NOT
ASK QUESTIONS”, the antithesis of Preston’s approach to life and
art. The third panel was ‘General Post Office, Sydney’ (1942),
sandbagged as a metaphor for censorship at that hub of communications.
[At that time, the authorities were taking down the clock tower.]
Preston left no explanation of her wartime pictures, her correspondence
and 1943 articles indicate her concerns.
was one of the few Australians with a first-hand experience of Japanese
culture, an appreciation deepened by her 1934 travels there. Hence, she
could not share the vehemence of the Australian propagandists who
proclaimed: “We’ve always despised them. Now we must smash them”.
Preston had further links to Japan through her husband, G. W. “Bill”
Preston, an executive at Anthony Hordern’s department store, one of
the emporia importing piece goods and toys, and whose senior staff the
Japanese Consulate cultivated. Complicating these connections was her
involvement with the cultural nationalists of the Jindyworobak movement
who opposed the “British Garrison” of imported professors, bishops,
editors and admirals. These cultural and commercial stances could slip
into appeasing Japanese militarists.
Labor Senator Lamp denounced Preston’s friend and Mosman neighbour,
the Bulletin’s proprietor,
Ken Prior, as a Japanese agent, her disenchantment
with the temper of this “sweet war” erupted:
think Australia has gone mad - … it seems that no one is
pro-Australian[.] it’s a matter of Treason against Old England[;]
anyway I’m going on painting only Australian subjects … if it’s a
hanging matter, well it just must be - … I wonder who will write the
next dictionary – Treason – loves your country above all political
rules, patriot – one who squeals great [Britain’s?] Country is good
enough for me – or any other but my own – a Book like this ought to
sell - 
By October, she
declared herself “bored stiff with the uniformed mind and body”.
touches underlined Preston’s critical stance. “Souvenir” on the
shed to lower right in ‘Submarine’ can be read as a comment on
profiteering. For ‘General Post Office’, Preston moved the Martin
Place Cenotaph closer to George Street to fit it into her composition as
a reminder of the slaughtered in the Great European War during which she
had nurtured the wounded. The flowers at its base allowed an ironic
moment of colour.
about the war reinforced a shift in her understanding of art. In a 1943
article, “Some Aspects of Contemporary Art”, she announced that she
had reached a pivotal moment in her own development when she
distinguished “modern” from “contemporary”. Modern artists, she
recognised, drew on the traditions of art in an individual way. She was
moving on to the “Contemporary” where the artist’s “forms and
symbols will show the conditions and ideas of his time”.
The English painter
Paul Nash exemplified Preston’s notion of the “contemporary”. She
called his ‘Totes Meer’ (1940-41) “a translation from a mass of smashed
German tanks”. In fact, Nash had re-worked images of wrecked Luftwaffe planes. Her misremembering is significant because it
reveals that she had linked Nash’s work with her different subject
matter. Their responses to either war machine resulted in canvases
“that could not have been painted at any other time.”
Nash’s ‘Coast Scenery’ [Did she mean ‘Monster Shore’ (1939)?]
as “a true example of contemporary art; it is harsh and cruel to the
Traps’ is devoid of the elegiac note from ‘Totes Meer’, the Preston has elements which are “harsh and
cruel”. Since Hiroshima, we cannot reckon their being so “to the
“Symbolic” had become the key concept for her understanding of the “contemporary”, making her technique part of her theme. Nash felt that the wrecked aircraft would seem alive if viewed by moonlight. Preston encouraged a painter friend to work by moonlight. ‘Tank Traps’ looks bleached, allowing the concrete structures along the beach to become more than a “symbolic rendering” of the repression against which she chaffed. Their fang-like appearance suggests a monster which emerges after dark, another “intuition” of terrors to come.
If none of Preston’s
three wartime panels is beautiful, their unloveliness expresses “these
tragic times”. The masses and volumes in ‘General Post Office’ and
‘Tank Traps’ applied patterning and tones learnt from Aboriginal
imagery. Little of the decorative lingered. The
pentahedrons in ‘Tank Traps’ adapted the geometric constructions
behind her banksias and eucalypts. Her 1943 description of the art of
Frank Medworth as “both mathematical and adventurous”
restated her determination to be formal yet daring.
Entry for Margaret Preston Catalogue, AGNSW, 2005, pp. 182-83.
Parliamentary Debates, vol. 170, 30 April 1942, p. 643;
Prior’s response, 6 May 1942, pp. 902-4.