22. MARGARET OLLEY
Margaret Olley’s most well-known and best loved paintings are undoubtedly her still life works – throughout her life, the artist had the ability to create beautifully crafted tableaux from the objects which she lived with. Her home and studio, which have been recreated at the Tweed Regional Art Gallery, were a constant source of inspiration and provided the backdrop for many of her best still life works. The subject matter which Olley worked with was always a combination of items from both the natural and man-made worlds: flowers, pottery, textiles, fruit and vegetables. The palette of her works varied from vivid, bright primary colours to muted, softer tones – Olley masterfully combined these to create her unique interior scenes which are now an important part of Australian art history.
Over the years, Olley’s Paddington studio accumulated an extensive collection of treasures gathered by the artist on her travels – Olley travelled widely through Asia, Europe and America and the objects she collected along the way inspired the distinctive aesthetic of her oeuvre. Lemons demonstrates Olley’s ability to create harmonious combinations of objects from her collection which co-habited the artist’s domestic space. Despite her friend and contemporary, artist Jeffrey Smart describing her home as ‘that beautiful magic cave of beguiling chaos’,1 there is a directness and sincerity about her painting which is allied to her character.
In Lemons, she has arranged the brightly coloured green and yellow citrus fruits across the table, bringing together the objects which make up her characteristic tableaux. The woven cane tray and glass trifle bowl holding the fruit are displayed carefully next to each other while the clay port bottle and crystal glass add depth to the composition. The fresh greens and yellows contrast playfully with the textures upon which they have been placed; glass, cane, and timber. Olley delights in the formal relationships of objects and the contrast of colours and textures.
Olley’s success as a painter of still life was a result of her ability to create these carefully constructed displays – what set her apart from painters working in the same genre was the manner in which she chose objects that came together to create beautiful, uniquely Australian arrangements that possessed a sense of familiarity. Olley favoured fruits and flowers and the majority of her still life works feature this combination – the use of these visually sumptuous objects gives the painting a characteristic quality that is uniquely Olley.
‘In her paintings the objects of her, and our, cluttered domesticity are transferred into quiet and lasting moments of contemplation and subtle, and equally lasting beauty…maybe there is a slight flavour of nostalgia, of a certain comfort and familiarity, they reveal a wealth of human experience in the prosaic. Her art is not about subject: it is about the experience of painting.’2
1. Jeffrey Smart, ‘A Tribute’, Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 1997, p.11
2. Capon E., Margaret Olley: Recent Paintings, Australian Galleries exhibition catalogue, Sydney, 1997, p.5
Caroline Jones BA, MArtAdmin.