Margaret Olley

Grafico Topico Update: In memory of Margaret Olley

Although from some years ago, Sue Smith feels this review still captures the essence of Margaret Olley's approach to art and life.

Rushcutter's Bay and Still Life
Margaret Olley

Philip Bacon Galleries
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1998

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

An edited version of this review was first published in The Courier-Mail 17 October,1998

Margaret Olley "Rushcutter's Bay and Still Life"

THERE'S nothing like painting what you're familiar with," says Margaret Olley. "You can do all sorts of things with the ordinary." She pauses to consider the alternatives. "To go off and paint the Swiss mountains is a monumental task, best left to God!"

But though Olley, 76, mostly paints still-lifes and the interiors of her own house, her world is anything but limited. She is a knowledgeable benefactor, who has given to public galleries works by Arthur Boyd, Edgar Degas and Georgio Morandi, as well as early Indian sculptures and miniatures.

The range and depth of her own art has also been recently discovered: last year, an acclaimed retrospective exhibition of her work, presented in Sydney, Brisbane and Newcastle, showed landscapes, nudes and self-portraits, as well as the interiors for which she is well-known.

And Olley has always been an open-minded traveller, absorbing new cultures and the master painters like a sponge: "I'm always trying to learn, (going) to the great sources," she says. In May this year, she went to London to see a huge Bonnard retrospective; before that, there was Rembrandt in Australia, Vermeer in Europe, and Matisse in New York. She has excellent recall, describing in detail paintings and exhibitions she has seen up to forty years ago.

As we speak, Olley talks constantly about the masters. It is partly a defense mechanism, a way of gently deflecting probing questions -- like most artists, Olley is reluctant to talk about the whys and wherefores of her own work. But she also loves these artists: they are her touchstones, her guiding angels. When, for example, she chooses to paint her favourite yellow room half a dozen times -- as in her current show at Brisbane's Phillip Bacon Galleries -- somewhere at the back of her mind are works such as Picasso's variations on the "seated woman" theme, a series she saw in Paris and has never forgotten.

Olley's admirers include the suave showman, Barry Humphries, and Art Gallery of New South Wales director Edmund Capon. Humphries, serious for once, praises Olley's "understanding of colour and her unerring placement of objects". Capon, writing in the retrospective catalogue, describes her as a specialist of "the intimate, the personal, even the prosaic ... Olley is a part of that tradition, from Vermeer in the seventeenth century to Morandi in the twentieth century ... which finds inspiration, beauty and a rich spirit of humanity in the most familar of subject matter."

Yet ever since Olley came to general public notice, in the mid-1950s, with vivid canvases of New Guinea, her realistic and angst-free style has been out of step with modern art trends. Modern life per se, with its stresses and strains, does not interest Olley. While other artists have promoted conflict and dissonance, she has championed harmony. Where they sought to disrupt the status quo, she was content to propose a seductive world of pleasure.

Being unfashionable, however, has never stopped Olley from being popular with private collectors -- to the contrary, her shows, like the current one, have often been complete sell-outs (some of her recent paintings were bought by collectors sight unseen, from descriptions over the phone). Nor did it mean that she has received bad reviews. But commercial success does not mean art establishment credibility: from the late ‘70s and through the '80s, she was often ignored by curators and critics anxious to catch the next big art wave from overseas.

Olley also has been out of step with an era demanding the outrageous from artists: at the least, people expect artists argue, drink all night, sleep around, maintain unusual studios. But Olley -- and Bonnard, Matisse and Magritte, a few of this century's most imaginative creators -- have all behaved outwardly rather like your quietest neighbours. Olley has friends to dinner parties, but most days does little more than paint in various rooms of her house, wherever "the light is right for that time of day", moving her palette with her on a little three-corner table.

In a sense, Olley has had the last laugh on a fickle art world. While their eyes were elsewhere, she kept her head down in her converted hat factory in Paddington and worked, and simply got better and better. Her best paintings now endow her ordinary surroundings with transcendant force. Look, for instance, at the edges of the pottery and the fruit in 'Rushcutter's Bay and still-life'. Everything in the room shimmers and vibrates with a golden light that streams inside from the landscape framed by a window. It is a painting that suggests paradise regained.

If the shenanigans of the art world ever bother Olley, she won't say publicly. Though you get an oblique hint of what she thinks of critics at least, when she talks, with amused exasperation, about the way London critics had "no understanding" and gave Bonnard "a dreadful time" dwelling on his obsessive paintings of his wife in her bath. What should they have dwelled on? "The PAINTING!" roars Olley, laughing.

No, the art world is not one of Olley's worries. The things she frets about are intangible and inevitable: light, the impossibility of perfection, mortality.

The bane of her existence is a dull, overcast day. "Oh, God, I hate winter," she says, " the short days! -- you really feel deprived, and this winter's been so dreadful with the rain and low clouds."

Just as maddening for her, is the impossible quest to re-create on canvas the perfect paintings in her mind's eye. This leads her to fiddle endlessly with pictures; sometimes they take years to paint, and even when they are ostensibly finished for exhibition, she feels the urge to take her paints along on opening night, maybe do a little re-touching...Allied with this hankering for perfection is, perhaps, the feeling that time is running out: "I hope before I die, I'll achieve where I want to go," she says. "Don't ask me what it is -- but something."

Though she is now in her late 70s, and is frailer, less mobile and walks often with the aid of a walking-frame, Olley remains determined: "I'm trying to turn my disability -- I can't get about all that much -- into some advantage. I think I can be sort of quieter and stiller, and concentrate more on painting -- I might paint better paintings." Clearly, even at this late point,she still has unfulfilled aims, though "you never say what they are, it puts the death-knell on it."

Could one of these goals be, as the beautiful Rushcutter's Bay picture suggests, to return to painting landscapes? "Aah," she hesitates, ambushed. "Could be. That's what I wasn't going to say. It's a question of whether one can get out in the field again -- there are two or three places I'm thinking of." Olley's many admirers will be hoping she can.

Margaret Olley, Philip Bacon Galleries, 2 Arthur St, Fortitude Valley  October 1998.
Copyright © 1998 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author