Menzies Art Brands



As Australias most celebrated painter of still life and interiors, Margaret Olley was also known for her forthright, no-nonsense attitude to life and art. She was an opinionated advocate for the traditional tenets of painting holding views sometimes controversial in the face of theory-based contemporary art forms that rose to prominence during her lifetime.1 Like her contemporary Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013), Olleys primary concerns in painting were visual rather than conceptual. It was the effective execution of the formal elements of picture-making composition, light, volume, and texture, that most occupied her creative process. As for the metaphorical associations we may draw from her paintings, like Smart who was notoriously difficult to pin down on the subject of meaning in his work, Olley was also happy to allow her visually sumptuous paintings to speak for themselves. The present work is no exception.

Of the three masters from history that Olley held most dear Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) and Paul Czanne (1839-1906),2 it is the influence of Czanne that is most readily perceptible in Calendulas and Bush Lemons. Czanne, who is credited with modernising the still life genre and elevating its lowly status, used the arrangement of natural forms to explore positive and negative space, while incorporating abstract components into his otherwise illusionistic paintings. Areas that lack definition, exposed fields of canvas, and flat planes that tilt forward to bend the rules of perspective sit alongside conventional still-life elements in his ground-breaking work.

Margaret Olley, a keen traveller with a voracious appetite for viewing paintings by the masters she admired, had many opportunities to apply her perceptive eye to the works of Czanne and analyse their secrets. As a skilled painter with an innate sense of composition and space, it is by no accident that Olley places gauzy fabric in the foreground of Calendulas and Bush Lemons, draping it over the edge of the table to draw the eye to the bottom of the canvas.

This artfully placed cloth has the optical effect of tilting the plane on which it rests (the table) slightly forward in the manner of Czanne, whereas other objects on the table are viewed from a more frontal perspective. It brings the scene closer to the viewer as if one could reach out and pull the cloth, and send the vase and its contents tumbling out of the picture frame. Olley represents reality and captures, as she calls it, the illusion of the moment3, yet simultaneously plays with perspective in a way that translates the sensation of looking from slightly different viewpoints. It is this enriched perspective that comes as a result of painting from life, rather than from a photograph, that gives the work a liveliness and visual interest that goes beyond straight reproduction. As said by Czanne himself, Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realising ones sensations.4

The present work is a fine example of a tendency towards celebration and abundance noted within Olleys art.5 Vivid orange and yellow tones are used to describe those healthy blooms, and are echoed in the large bush lemons that fill both bowls. Flowers and a lemon are strewn about the table, as if overflowing from the vessels that hold them, and an over-riding sense of warmth and generosity pervades this sunny image.

While such works may at first glance appear simple in subject matter and intent, Olleys ongoing project to represent the interior world around her through the slippery medium of oil paint on canvas provided a rich and complex field for creative engagement. The present work reflects both the vitality of her approach and her deep respect for the innovative work of past masters of the still life genre.

1. Capon, E. foreword in Pearce, B. Margaret Olley, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2012, p. 8

2. Pearce, B. Margaret Olley, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2012, p.19

3. ibid p.21

4. Museum of Modern Art website, URL:

5. France, C. Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990, p.69

Marguerite Brown MAArtCur




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