restricted access The Role of Place in Jane Addams and Margaret Preston
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The Role of Place in Jane Addams and Margaret Preston


My exploration of the nature of and importance of place will focus on two women: Jane Addams and Margaret Preston.1 As far as I know, Jane Addams never met Margaret Preston, who was Australia’s foremost woman painter between the two world wars, nor did they influence each other in any way. However, they partially overlap in time: Jane Addams 1860–1935, Margaret Preston 1875–1963. They also share similar approaches to the ties that bind us to the countries in which we live and work. They both encouraged and contested the popular myths of homeland and worked to reform and redefine the meaning of nationalism. In their lives, they ran up against similar obstacles. Ironically, these and other significant similarities, despite their occupying such different places, casts doubt on their own emphases on the importance of place in their work. I will examine how such similarities, despite very different geographic locations, force us to expand our understanding of “shared space.” This is an exercise in the value of comparative studies as a means of overcoming tropes of nationalistic exceptionalism and an exploration of how concrete particulars can become universals.

Time and place first drew me to Margaret Preston and conjured up an immediate kinship with Jane Addams. On the face of it, such a claimed conjunction seems rather far-fetched, given that this revelation took place, not in Chicago, or even in the United States, but at the opposite end of the world. Despite the fact that Preston is one of Australia’s most celebrated female artists, I only discovered her work because I happened to visit the Art Gallery in New South Wales when I unexpectedly found myself with an extra day of sightseeing in Sydney. Out of all the postcards displayed in the museum [End Page 1] shop, I was immediately drawn to a striking group of woodcut prints that turned out to be by Preston. (See Sydney Heads 1925; Mosman Bridge 1927; and Sydney Bridge 19322). So, my selective interest in a space where her works were exhibited provided the first conjunction.

Curious to find out more about the woman who produced such striking works, I picked up a catalog on Preston by Deborah Edwards and Rose Peel, who had curated an exhibition on her at the art gallery. The more I read, the more I was reminded of Addams. Like the second wave of Addams’s scholarship, which has promoted a reassessment of her contributions using insights developed by feminist and other critical theorists, Edwards’s comprehensive and incisive monograph clearly explains the contexts in which Preston was originally viewed and judged, and therefore allows the reader to more satisfactorily evaluate her accomplishments. So, this paper is as much about Edwards’s revaluation of her as it is about Preston’s artistic productions.

Edwards begins by explaining why—despite Preston’s stature and popularity—this first monograph and the exhibition discussing her entire oeuvre only happened in 2005. She says the key lies in her gender and the gendered expectations through which her artistic accomplishments were judged. Edwards tells us that “the strength of her character, ambitions and opinions presents a cumulative picture of an exceptional, polemic personality.” But she also points out that this was often negatively construed by “a range of collectors, dealers and artist colleagues” as evidence of “a domineering, efficiently self-promoting artist driven to public success” (Edwards and Peel 15).3 “By the mid 1920s, Preston had become a highly political player in the local scene; her personality and equally vigorous opinions again polarized an artistic community.” Edwards continues: “In the context of her repeated attacks on an establishment frequently viewed as a moribund ‘bunch of copyists,’ she was called ‘Mad Maggie’ … a raging jealous creature who… hasn’t one ounce of gratitude in her carcass,” and “the most naturally conceited person I ever knew” (75).

In what she calls her own “more constructive reading,” Edwards explains the discrepancy of judgments as evidence that many contemporary critics were reacting to Preston’s “forceful feminist voice unapologetically committed to issues of ‘female relevance’ and to...