Margaret Preston
‘Tank Traps’ (1943)

Oil on canvas
42 x 52.5 cm

‘Tank 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.]

Although Preston left no explanation of her wartime pictures, her correspondence and 1943 articles indicate her concerns.

Preston 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.

After Labor Senator Lamp denounced Preston’s friend and Mosman neighbour, the Bulletin’s proprietor, Ken Prior, as a Japanese agent,[1] her disenchantment with the temper of this “sweet war” erupted:

I 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 - [2]

By October, she declared herself “bored stiff with the uniformed mind and body”.[3]

Several pictorial 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.

Preston’s skepticism 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.”

Preston considered Nash’s ‘Coast Scenery’ [Did she mean ‘Monster Shore’ (1939)?] as “a true example of contemporary art; it is harsh and cruel to the last degree”.

Although ‘Tank 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 last degree”.[4]

“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.[5] Preston encouraged a painter friend to work by moonlight.[6] ‘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”[7] restated her determination to be formal yet daring.

Entry for Margaret Preston Catalogue, AGNSW, 2005, pp. 182-83.

[1] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. 170, 30 April 1942, p. 643; Prior’s response, 6 May 1942, pp. 902-4.
MP to Ian Mudie, early May 1942, SASA, PRG 27/1.
[3] MP to Rex Ingamells, 23 October 1942, LaTrobe Library MS 6244.
[4] Meanjin Papers, 2 (1), Autumn 1943, pp. 26-27; Art in Australia reproduced a black-and-white ‘Totes Meer’ in its June-August 1942 issue, p. 38.
[5] Quoted Andrew Causley, Paul Nash, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, p. 313.
[6] Clem Christesen to Preston, 12 October 1949, Meanjin Archives, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.
[7] Meanjin Papers, 2 (2), Winter 1943, p. 32.