Margaret Olley: the interior artist

The internet has provided art lovers with a very powerful tool. Because so many galleries have put their collections online, it is possible to gain a perspective on an artist’s work that in the past would be possible only by visiting numerous galleries. It is also possible to see the two Archibald award-winning portraits of Olley by Dobbel and Quilty on the Internet and there is also a wonderful photograph of her late in her life.

The artist as oil painting: a photo of Margaret Olley. (Published in The July 29, 2011)
The artist as oil painting: a photo of Margaret Olley. (Published in The Age July 29, 2011)

My attention was drawn to two paintings by Margaret Olley: Plumbago and Proteas in kitchen. These two paintings are a wonderful example of what Betty Churcher described as Olley’s “watchful eye” and they reveal Olley’s tremendous talent for the finding beauty in the ordinary and everyday scenes of our lives.

Plumbago (left) and Proteas in kitchen (right)
Plumbago (left) and Proteas in kitchen (right)

Another thing that the availability of internet images allows us to do is to understand that these paintings probably do not represent what Olley’s kitchen looked like. Photographs of the interior of her house indicate that it was far more cluttered and visually rich than even these paintings would suggest.

Photographs of the interior of her house indicate that it was far more cluttered and visually rich than even these paintings would suggest.

Photographs of the interior of Margaret Olley's house
Photographs of the interior of Margaret Olley’s house

In an extremely perceptive piece on Olley’s work, Robert Nelson wrote ” the artist reveals how one can be satisfied working out the just weight of things”

In Proteas, the red tones of the flowers suffuses the entire scene: the wooden tabletop, the cupboards, the shelf and the window frame are all tinged with the red light that the proteas generate as Olley weighs and balances the colours in the kitchen corner. The flowers in the bottom right-hand corner surrounded by a series objects that reflect and modify the red orange tones of the flowers.

In Plumbego, Olley has shifted the colour weight and balance. Here the flowers are blue and the influence of the colour permeated the painting. The blues in the painting have been subtly emphasised, the glass preserving jars had been replaced by blue vases and a glass of water which catches the blue light of the vase has been added. When we turn our eye to the other corner of the painting, we see the subtle influence of the blue tones through the entire painting.

The weighing of light and shadow
The weighing of light and shadow

In Plumbago, we see the blue light of the flowers in the shadows of the mundane objects of the kitchen, a blender, a kettle and a teapot. The scene is still lit from the window. as it is in Plumbago, but it is fascinating to see how the colour is nuanced in the less well-lit aspects of the painting. It’s almost as if Olley is saying, “Come into the kitchen with me, I will show you how I use colour.” And I think she is also saying, “You need to take time when you look at paintings and you need to look carefully and attentively.”

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