(c) Margaret Olley/Courtesy of The Margaret Olley Art Trust & Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane
22. MARGARET OLLEY
Olley’s kitchen paintings are a refreshing blend of still life and interior. Where previously Olley had depicted her tightly composed still lifes against a close, plain backdrop, here she combines the two genres. In Wildflowers in the Kitchen, the still life, complete with meticulously rendered jug, fruit, and flowers, dominates the foreground, while the inviting clutter of the room’s interior provides the background. As a result of this broad composition, the viewer enjoys a much fuller, more detailed painting where one feels they could step into the space and make tea. Wildflowers in the Kitchen is very much an example of the artist painting at her peak, benefitting from years of fine-tuning her painting practice.
Remarkably, Olley’s most confident and mature works came relatively late in life, in her 60s and 70s, with no sign of declining technical proficiency. Olley was formally declared an Australian National Treasure in 1997, the year before she began painting Wildflowers in the Kitchen. She remained one of Australia’s best living artists until her death in 2011, aged 88.
The present work shares the same composition as Proteas in the Kitchen 2000, which Christine France – art historian, curator, and long-time friend of Margaret Olley – chose to illustrate the front cover of her book on the artist (reproduced here as Fig.1).1 In both paintings, the kitchen bench, scattered with various vessels, fruit and flowers, dominates the lower right of the composition. The windows above are cropped, suggesting an ambivalence to the exterior world. The tiny corner of window in the upper left hints at the main light source for the scene, creating beautiful highlights and shadows on each object. The two works share several of the same items, including the white kettle on the counter accompanied by an apple on a blue rimmed plate. Other works from this period to employ this composition are all privately held, including Clivias 2001 and Plumbago 2000.2
This inclination to depict the same objects was driven by her belief that each work of art stands alone as an aesthetic encounter. The central jug with the wide blue band fringed with gold, holding the beautiful mess of wildflowers, is also recurrent in many of Olley’s paintings, most notably in Hawkesbury Wildflowers and Pears 1973. Painted a quarter of a century earlier, this work is now held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia (reproduced here as Fig.2). This jug serves as a reminder that Olley’s paintings depict existing assemblages of her real possessions in her Duxford Street studio home.
It is important to note that Olley’s commitment to the still life painting was not incidental nor in ignorance to modern art. On the contrary, Olley travelled extensively and visited museums in Australia and internationally, but chose to make, ‘no stylistic concessions to fashion in her painting’.3 Throughout her travels, Olley collected the vast array of objects with which she created her unique home environment or, as Barry Humphries once described it, ‘the rich labyrinth of her magically transformed terrace house.’4 Olley surrounded herself with things she desired to paint, resulting in a life dedicated to the pursuit of beauty. Wildflowers in the Kitchen is an important painting and one filled with joy. As Olley herself stated, ‘I have an absolute obsession to paint. I go to bed and I can’t wait to wake up and be painting again.’5
1. France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002
2. Both works are available to view online via The Olley Project
3. France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.49
4. Humphries, B., ‘A Note of Exclamation’, quoted in Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, p.8
5. Margaret Olley, quoted in France, C., Margaret Olley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, inside cover