Margaret Olley painted Kilim Rug and Cornflowers II in 1997, the year after the Art Gallery of New South Wales mounted her acclaimed retrospective exhibition, and the same year that she was declared an Australian National Treasure. It is a time when her career was at its pinnacle and her artistic style was proficient in its maturity. There is no shortage of accolades throughout Olley’s illustrious career, which spans over ninety solo exhibitions. Remarkably, her most confident and refined works came relatively late in life, in her 60s and 70s, including the exemplary Kilim Rug and Cornflowers II 1997.
Olley’s still lifes are not dainty or fussy. They carry the same weight as a grand landscape or portrait and are unapologetic in their domesticity. Her compositions appear effortlessly spontaneous yet perfectly balanced, a difficult equilibrium to achieve. Despite their apparent unaffectedness, every object in Olley’s paintings is chosen for its paint-ability (its colour, shape, and texture) and staged with precision. The glossy apples, feathery blue cornflowers and patterned kilims in this painting are no exception. In a 1989 interview Olley explained that, ‘the subject matter is not important; it is the shape, the placement and the pictorial relationship which concerns me.’1
Olley lived and worked at her home studio in Duxford Street, Paddington, from 1964 until her death in 2011. While the paintings she produced there are beautifully composed vignettes, a photograph such as Figure 1 reveals the reality of a cluttered and chaotic living space that was primarily devoted to the making of art. The endless array of ceramic jugs, bowls of fruit, wooden sculptures, vases of flowers, woven baskets, tribal masks, mirrors, and kilims were props that she had collected to inform her artistic process. In this regard Olley’s home was similar to Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny: ‘a set for painting, an ostensible subject through which more subtle things can be suggested.’2
So alluring and inspiring was her home studio that other artists, including Justin O’Brien and Cressida Campbell, also spent time working there. Barry Humphries, a close friend of Olley, described the creative calamity of her home as follows:
As the artist conducts her visitor through the rich labyrinth of her magically transformed terrace house, she may extinguish her cigarette here, emphasise ruddy highlight on a painted pomegranate there: for each room seems to have its uncompleted canvas, its wet palette, its sheaf of brushes and of course, its ashtray. On her journey from the kitchen to the telephone she may impart some final touch to a consummate still life.3
The open door in the upper left of Kilim Rug and Cornflowers II provides the scene with a source of light and depth. Many of Olley’s still lifes are often set against a close, flat backdrop such as a wall or piece of hanging fabric. However here we are afforded a sense of the surrounding space; a glimpse into her home beyond the still life arrangement. This artful combination of still life and interior makes Kilim Rug and Cornflowers II a consummate example of Olley’s beloved style.
1. Interview with Margaret Olley, 22 March 1989, quoted in France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.11
2. Allen, C., ‘Olley’s Knack of Improving with Age…’, The Australian, 20 July 2019
3. Humphries, B., ‘A Note of Exclamation’, in Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, p.8