Sydney Morning Herald Column

Margaret Olley

Published February 24, 2017
Margaret Olley, The yellow room triptych, 2007, oil on board, 138.0 x 290.0cm. New England Regional Art Museum - Purchased through the Yellow Room Appeal 2013 The Howard Hinton Collection

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than five years since Margaret Olley died. She was such a forceful personality I still half expect to see her pushing through a crowd at the Art Gallery of NSW, using her walking frame to clear a path. The art world is notorious for its doublespeak but Margaret was a straight shooter. She combined an outspoken nature with a big heart. She was a generous donor to public institutions and a friend to younger artists whose work she admired.
Yet for all her qualities Olley was never an outstanding painter. Her work remained staunchly conventional and often rushed in execution. One of Olley’s catch-cries was “Hurry, hurry, last days!”, and that sense of urgency is reflected in the late pictures, in which brushwork and composition grow slightly ragged.
One of the pleasures of Margaret Olley: Painter, Peer, Mentor, Muse, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, is an acute selection of Olley’s works that shows her at her very best. Curator Renée Porter has been sensitive to the ebb and flow of Olley’s career, juxtaposing the artist’s pictures with those of friends and younger painters.
Dobell’s great portrait is included, but not those by Russell Drysdale or Ben Quilty. Nevertheless, there are so many possible inclusions for this show it would be tedious to start listing omissions or alternatives. Olley is the nucleus, and she has been done proud.
That’s the good news. I only wish Porter’s curatorial skills extended to her catalogue essay – a poor piece of writing that seems to have evaded the scrutiny of an editor. Neither is there any mention of the disastrous fire of 1982 that gutted Olley’s family home in Brisbane and destroyed decades of work, including many of her best and most ambitious paintings. For the artist it was a terrible blow, and one wonders what effect it had on the work that followed.
After almost 60 years it could be argued that Self-portrait in a mirror and the Hill End landscape, Back buildings (both 1948) are still among Olley’s most impressive paintings. There is a thoroughness in these pictures that one misses in the later work when she had become more confident and fluent. In the early pictures Olley takes nothing for granted. It is as if she had to re-learn how to paint a piece of fruit or a flower each time she returned to the easel.

Margaret Olley, Late afternoon, 1972, oil on hardboard, 90.0 x 122.0cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales – Gift of Margaret Olley 2001
Margaret Olley, Late afternoon, 1972, oil on hardboard, 90.0 x 122.0cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales – Gift of Margaret Olley 2001

With age and experience she became less fastidious, although there is much to admire in paintings such as Late afternoon (1972) and Chinese screen and yellow room (1996). In fact it’s easy to admire most of Olley’s work although she is not as distinctive or original as some of the artists in her peer group. Most people would probably prefer a painting that’s easy on the eye to one that stands out from the crowd, but every artist’s reputation pivots on that point where he or she disengages from the mainstream.
Paintings that seem weird or ugly to contemporary eyes may come to be accepted as masterpieces in the years that follow. Cézanne and Matisse provide two obvious examples.
In this exhibition the most distinctive painter is David Strachan (1919-70), a compelling but underrated artist whose work has a dream-like quality. An Olley still life such as Hawkesbury wildflowers with lemons (1971) is a solid, attractive slice of observable reality, but Strachan’s Batterie de cuisine (1956) is almost surreal in the way kitchen implements don’t rest on a table top, but appear to float above it.
David Strachan, Batterie de Cuisine, 1956, oil on hardboard, 73 x 91.8cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales – Gift of the Lane Cove Art Society 1973
David Strachan, Batterie de Cuisine, 1956, oil on hardboard, 73 x 91.8cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales – Gift of the Lane Cove Art Society 1973

This awkward, otherworldly quality is also found in Faces in flannel flowers (1970), where one androgynous face resides within the vase, and another hovers amid the flowers. In Strachan’s paintings there’s a mystery that is never quite exhausted, no matter how often one returns for another look.
I don’t need to make a case for Drysdale who is one of the giants of 20th century of Australian art. A keynote of his work is the way he conjures up a sense of melancholy in his views of the Outback. The Chinaman’s store (1949) is such a lonely vista it seems humanity has not only deserted the town, but the entire planet.
Of Olley’s other peers, Jean Bellette, Justin O’Brien and Jeffrey Smart are represented by only a handful of works but they are relatively known quantities. Anne Wienholt, with a few deft drawings and a sculpture is the only survivor from Olley’s student days at the National Art School.
Among the most intriguing inclusions are the paintings of Mitty Lee Brown and Moya Dyring. Brown’s Life painting, female nude (c.1943) is a tremendously accomplished student work. It suggests Brown could have been a force in Australian art had she not left the country so early in her career. (I’m tempted to add: “…or been a bloke.”)
Moya Dyring was another expatriate, who settled in Paris, and died while still in her fifties. Her paintings in this show, notably Montauban on the Tarn (c.1955), reveal a quick, delicate touch. Her subtlety is in contrast to her good friend, Fred Jessup, whose works feel garish and derivative, although this may be an unfair call on the basis of only two paintings.
It would be a strange show if Donald Friend were not included. As one of Olley’s closest companions, and a dominant personality in the post-war years, Friend was colourful enough to inspire the first ever book by the young Robert Hughes. His work may seem frivolous nowadays, but it needs to be viewed as part of the Neo-romantic ethos that swept through British art at the time the Americans were pioneering Abstract Expressionism.
It’s distressing that last year, when the Tweed Regional Gallery exhibited a photo of Friend by Greg Weight, a controversy broke out over the artist’s paedophilic activities in Bali. This has never been a big secret but it has suddenly become a flash-point. To be shocked to find a photo of Friend in a gallery that contains a detail-perfect reconstruction of Olley’s home-studio, is purely hysterical.
Regardless of his sexual predilections one cannot eliminate Friend from the story of Australian art or from Olley’s biography. Yet the photo was removed from the gallery; the Tweed’s very good director, Susi Muddiman, was villfied; and there were suggestions that Friend’s works be dumped from public collections and even destroyed.
The idea that difficult people can be scrubbed out of history is profoundly totalitarian. We don’t have to approve of Friend’s life – or Gauguin’s, for that matter – to appreciate his artistic and literary skills. If Olley wasn’t repulsed by Friend, it’s absurd that anybody today should be so squeamish.
The final part of the show features work by some of the younger artists Olley befriended: Robert Barnes, Criss Canning, Cressida Campbell, Nicholas Harding and Ben Quilty. They divide neatly into three males who use thick paint, and two females with a taste for still life.
Cressida Campbell, Margaret Olley interior, 1992, hand-coloured woodblock, 88.0 x 70.0cm. Private Collection
Cressida Campbell, Margaret Olley interior, 1992, hand-coloured woodblock, 88.0 x 70.0cm. Private Collection

I’ve said it so often I feel almost embarrassed to do so again, but Cressida Campbell is the stand-out in the group. Canning’s immaculate still lifes feel flat and decorative in comparison to Campbell’s interiors, in which the compositions have been refined with a watchmaker’s precision. One can feel the space in these pictures, whereas everyone else has worked to squeeze out any vestige of air and light.
Thick paint is difficult to manipulate without everything becoming a muddy mess, but Harding and Barnes are skilful technicians. (There’s not enough of Quilty to make any generalisations.) The problem is that the technique mitigates against subtleties of colour and composition. There is more light and textural interest in two large black-and-white drawings of Harding’s, but to love the oils one must have an almost sensual fascination with that glutinous, tactile epidermis of paint.
Margaret Olley had a taste for it, but by her own admission she loved looking at everything, seeing potential subject matter in every dusty corner. Whether she was capturing the world on a canvas or shaking up the narrow tastes of our public galleries, Olley understood that the art that really mattered was the art of making an impression.
Margaret Olley: Painter, Peer, Mentor, Muse
S.H.Ervin Gallery
until 26 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 25th February, 2017.