(c) Margaret Olley/Courtesy of The Margaret Olley Art Trust & Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane
Kitchen Cupboard with Pomegranates c1979 was undoubtedly painted in Margaret Olley’s home in Duxford Street, Paddington, where she lived and worked from 1964 until her death. While the paintings produced there are perfectly balanced aesthetic compositions, photographs reveal a cluttered and chaotic living space devoted almost exclusively to creating pictures.
The space was filled with artfully arranged vignettes of fruit, jugs, bowls, and flowers ready to be painted. Of these arrangements Olley said, ‘it is no use to begin painting substantially until the positions of the objects are right; for instance, moving that jug over, feeling my way around…’1 Olley selected each object not for its value or practical use, but for its texture, shape and colour – in other words, for its paint-ability. In a 1989 interview Olley explained: ‘the subject matter is not important; it is the shape, the placement and the pictorial relationship which concerns me.’2
One such pictorial arrangement is the present combination of a large ceramic vase holding pomegranates on their branches, alongside a smaller bowl of pomegranates, a white jug with a red rim, a red coffee pot, and a swath of material draped across the benchtop. As is obvious in the photograph presented here (Figure 1), the image was a real arrangement in Olley’s home, carefully constructed, yet seeming effortless and impromptu.
Olley painted pomegranates on various occasions throughout her career. The present work, Kitchen Cupboard with Pomegranates, is thought to have been painted circa 1979, the same year that she painted Pomegranates and Brush Pots which also depicts a bouquet of pomegranates in the same ceramic vase.3 Other depictions of pomegranates from different periods often show them in different vases or baskets.
Olley never conformed to artistic trends. She showed little regard for the contemporaneous movements of abstraction and minimalism, instead persisting with her eminent still-lifes and interiors. It is important to note that this commitment to the still-life was not incidental through lack of exposure to other subjects or movements. On the contrary, Olley travelled extensively and was well-versed in the local and international art scenes. As curator and writer, Christine France, stated, ‘although she is well aware and tolerant of the current trends, Margaret Olley makes no stylistic concessions to fashion in her painting.’4
Olley’s self-assured attitude and commitment to painting her immediate surroundings saw her hold over ninety solo shows and win eighteen art prizes and awards. In 1997 Olley was formally declared an Australian National Treasure, and even now her success continues to grow: last year, a decade after her death, her previous auction record of $158,600 set in 2013, was surpassed on three separate occasions.
1. Margaret Olley, quoted in Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2012, p.118
2. Margaret Olley, as quoted in France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.11
3. Pomegranates and Brush Pots 1979, oil on board, 75.0 x 121.0 cm, private collection; illus. in France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, pl.47
4. France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.49