Gallery: Margaret Olley |
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Margaret Olley

Beloved den-mother to the senior generation of Australian painters, Margaret Olley can easily be misjudged as to the true strength of her work. Like Jeffrey Smart, and unlike John Olsen, she has not, in her mature years, notably engaged with identifiably Australian subjects: most of those came early, in the days of her creative alliance with Donald Friend, and were gradually set aside as she got further and further into what looked like a universe of still life where there were flowers among the pots and plates, but very few people, and some of those have wafted in from a drawing-room by Manet. After her first travels, she brought her Europe back to Australia with her, unpacked it in her Paddington house, and set about rearranging it. But the rearrangement has more to do with fluid dynamics and chromatic modulation than with geometric reordering. The still life commands a closer look, and the more strict the viewer's scrutiny — the nearer, that is, to matching hers — the more it becomes clear that the subject matter is dissolving into colour and movement. What begins as a registration flows towards the abstract. One of the effects is of history converging into a time tunnel through space, as all the relationships of form and colour in her beloved French painting of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coalesce into a symphonic language.

Though still the shockable girl from northern New South Wales who was appalled, when an art student in Sydney, to find herself the centre of a scandal after William Dobell painted her in a dress of unrationed white parachute silk, Margaret Olley is a highly sophisticated artist with a full range of learning in her medium. Along with her French exemplars, there are many other painters echoing and interacting in her work. But she makes everything uniquely hers with her sense of balance. In command of Sydney's leading salon for these many decades, she is celebrated for her generosity to the up and coming, and makes the old and going feel just as glad to be invited to her table: she is the link to the next generation after hers, and to the next generation after that. Her other generosities, however, will have an even more extended effect. Her gifts of important paintings to the Australian galleries continue to set a standard that people with a lot more money will be ashamed not to match. And her own paintings have an importance which, though it has for a long time been rated high, is only now being recognized in the full splendour of its individuality — a radical synthesis disguised as a homage to tradition. One last generosity I had better soft-pedal, and merely say that her allowing me to showcase some of her pictures here is one of those moments that make me realise this machine has already developed a disturbing knack for getting what it wants.

(Photograph by Alice Pagliano, 2003, from the front cover of Margaret Olley: far from a still life, by Meg Stewart, Random House Australia, 2005)