White porcelain, evening
oil on board
45 x 52 cm
Since her last exhibition in London, I would, if I could, sing the praises of Margaret Olley in Gerard Manly Hopkins style, for the dappled, freckled, pieced-together world in which she moves; like finches’ wings; landscape plotted and pieced-fold; gear and tackle trim; things counter, original, spare, strange.
Margaret Olley's house and garden is a sublime jumble, famous by reputation. Her clothes, often worn in layers, a collection of blouses, sheeny, with light scarves, sometimes cheap sometimes expensive, speckled or striped, over-jackets of Chinese silk and quilted velvet, Van Eyck bonnets, battered straw hats, and an old cardigan for a cold body. Margaret Olley's mind reverberates with causes; but in the end her purpose in life is to turn this world, this illusion in which we live, into art.
I saw Margaret Olley unfurl her long hair on the plane and curl up to sleep – couldn’t smoke, had to take a pill – and an old woman became a vulnerable girl. Formidableness evaporated from the person emerging from the woodwork of shyness I remember first meeting nearly thirty years ago. In the morning she was razor-sharp once again, offering a mint to help my ears pop as the London-bound plane began to descend.
In Paris we stood outside the Louvre near masses gathering at the pyramid entrance, my coat held against the wind so she could light a cigarette. At the Musee D’Orsay, Moses the zimmer-frame parted the crowds to reveal Gauguin’s Le cheval blanc, the very same image she saw as a child on a wall at school, which made her want to paint. ‘The horse is not white of course’, Margaret Olley said. ‘It’s blue. That was the joy of it’.
Fragments recollected. Her trenchant views and infuriating stubbornness. Her political conservatism. Her attendance at every function to stay on the pulse. Her great spirit of giving. Her passion for the moment.
Suddenly we, who thought we knew her well, who had brought the fragments together into a comfortable whole, were hit by a surprise a few years ago. Margaret Olley became a public speaker. How could this possibly be, this person once drawn by shyness to the injurious zone of alcoholism; who prefered to express her views offstage; and who, if pressed to bare her thoughts in public, always asked someone else to speak in her stead?
But then, the more important miracle. At that last London show I had felt she could not paint better. There was a certain blondeness in the palette, relaxed brushwork combined with firmer composition – a perfect mix – concealing the struggle for rightness better than she had ever done before. Yet here, in Brisbane, allied with the panels I saw sprinkled incomplete around her house just a few weeks ago, a bolder painterly ambition may be witnessed stirring.
Margaret Olley has been resurrecting a few early compositions, improved by the repositioning of a window here, the tonal change of a background there, or some other inevitably imperceptible re-arrangement of the motif. There are too, paintings conceived with a fresh bunch of blossoms set amongst familiar objects dusted by time that have required little modification. These ones, where the fundamentals were mostly right from the outset, are the painter’s dream.
In parallel with all these she has embarked on a series of new large paintings on the theme of the yellow room, that transitional space between the two- story house in Paddington and the old hat factory where she spends most of her time. One is a triptych, seen here, a work in progress. It may turn out to be her finest masterpiece; our own big antipodean Vuillard, but better than Vuillard, because he lost the innocence she has managed to preserve. We shall have to wait and see though, as she toughs it out. It is not for sale. Stay tuned.
Head Curator, Australian Art
Art Gallery of New South WalesExtract from 2007 exhibition catalogue