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Margaret Preston’s Flowers

>> Jun 9, 2012

A beautiful vase blooming with colour and life often takes centre place on assorted tables around the country. Throughout history still-life interpretations of flowers in a vase has catapulted artists into recognition and legend. Van Gough is an obvious one for his sunflowers and here in Australia, Margaret Preston became well known in the art world in the early 19th century with her still life woodcuts. Taking a trip to the local florist or shopping for flowers online may remind you again of how a simple image can inspire artists into greatness. An avid supporter of indigenous Australian culture, Preston often painted Australian Native wildflowers and bush scenes, popularising our unique flora and landscape both here and overseas.  

Margaret Preston was Australia’s foremost female painter between the wars, a period when many of the best Australian artists were women. Talented and adventurous, she used still-life as a subject throughout her career and her greatest achievements in the area came in the years 1915 and 1930.

Margaret Preston’s Life Work
Preston took lessons in china-painting when she was young after her mother caught her painting over the china plates and later studied at the Melbourne National Gallery School under Fred McCubbin. After the death of her father in Adelaide she returned to Melbourne to study under Bernard Hall, director of the gallery and head of the art school. Here she progressed from charcoal studies to drawing nudes, winning a drawing prize in 1897.

In 1898 she returned to Adelaide where she studied at the Adelaide School of Design and attended another life drawing class and soon began teaching to support her mother and young sister. After the death of her mother Preston returned to Europe and studied in Paris. She started painting again while living in France and gained an understanding of Japanese art at the Musee Guimet in France. Colour, flat patterning and lines gave her work drama and boldness that became very popular.

Upon marrying William George Preston, Margaret no longer needed to worry about financially supporting herself and produced many theoretical journal articles and paintings. The woodcuts Preston produced in 1925, while living in Mosman, depicted Sydney scenes including Circular Quay, Sydney Heads, Sydney Foreshore and Mosman Bridge. These paintings were generally praised by art critiques of the time.

Margaret Preston on Australia
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1950 Margaret Preston said, “No one else seemed to be using Australian flowers but I think they are more interesting and decorative than those of other nations”. Late in the 1920’s her wildflower woodcuts featured on magazine covers and became extremely popular prints to hang in the home. Her wildflowers included Australian Gum Blossom, Hibiscus and Flannel Flowers.

Preston had a particular fondness for painting Banksia and the simplicity of form in these images of Banksia reflected the popular Art deco movement of the time. Her later works in the 1940s were inspired by Aboriginal art and she wrote magazine articles discussing this style.

Ultimately Margaret Preston was propelled to discover a national decorative art style that would signify Australia and the Australian cultural landscape. Her interest and respect of Indigenous culture and art is to be admired and provides insight into her passion for both art and Australia and why her work proved so popular.

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