36. MARGARET OLLEY
‘Olley’s paintings are celebrations of materiality. There is mystery enough for her in the sensuality of surfaces, the slender arc of a Turkish teapot, the transient perfection of flowers, glints of light on glass or silver, the burning lemon, the pattern of banksias against an orange wall, not to mention the translation of these things into paint which takes on an inexplicable life of its own.’1
Margaret Olley is one of Australia’s most renowned painters of the still-life subject, her legacy to Australian art history is significant and her characteristic interior scenes are highly regarded and collected worldwide. Throughout her long and successful career, the still life was the focus of her artistic production, eschewing the trends which were engaging her contemporaries, in favour of the thoughtful, harmonious domestic scenes which became her unique oeuvre.
Olley was born on the mid-North coast of New South Wales and spent much of her childhood in Queensland, later attending Brisbane Central Technical College to follow her interest in art. In 1943, Olley moved to Sydney to attend East Sydney Technical College and it was here she forged strong friendships with contemporaries Donald Friend (1915-1989), Justin O’Brien (1917-1996) and David Strachan (1919-1970) which would shape her as an artist and influence her career.
Untitled (Still Life with Daisies and Grapes) exemplifies the manner in which Olley was able to make ordinary, everyday objects appear to be items of great beauty – the artist’s skill enabled her to group objects of different colours, shapes and textures so that they came together in perfectly balanced, harmonious compositions. ‘Still life and interiors gave her the freedom she desired. There was no looming storm forcing her to finish a landscape and no anxious model waiting for her to finish a portrait.’2 Here, Olley has carefully curated a white tea set - including jugs, coffee pot, cup and saucer – setting this assemblage against an earth-coloured background to accentuate the curved patterning on the objects. The blue daisies and green grapes invite the viewer’s gaze and bring fresh colour and life to the composition.
Olley was an ardent admirer of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), much of her work also bears the influence of Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Following the example of these leading exponents of still-life, Untitled (Still Life with Daisies and Grapes) brilliantly captures the play of light and shadow which catch the rounded grapes and lustrous glaze of the ceramics. While Untitled (Still Life with Daisies and Grapes), like other works of this period, has a notably more sombre palette than works before or after, there is still a palpable sense of warmth and familiarity, reflected in the richness of colour and sensuous shapes and forms to be found in the domestic interior.
Margaret Olley’s life was as busy and full as her colourful still life compositions – she had more than ninety solo exhibitions of her work and was awarded an Order of Australia in 1991. The Margaret Olley Art Centre at the Tweed Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah is a tribute to the artist and the significant contribution she made to Australian art.
1. Pearce, B., Margaret Olley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, pp.14, 15
2. France, C., Margaret Olley: Home, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Sydney and Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 2013, p.35
Caroline Jones BA MArtAdmin.