Susan with flowers, a contemplative work by Margaret Olley

 

In her studio underneath Farndon, her family home in Brisbane’s Hill End, Margaret Olley completed a series of paintings of Indigenous women and men. Susan with flowers 1962 is a major work from this group, and was awarded the 1963 Finney’s Centenary Art Prize, judged by the Queensland Art Gallery’s then director Laurie Thomas.

In these works, Olley’s subjects are a vehicle for the study of light and the form of the figure, often set against groupings of flowers and fruits, and these contemplative works certainly show a sensitivity and feeling for the individuals depicted.

The years 1962-65 are central to an understanding of Olley’s career as she established a national profile and was awarded nine prizes for her paintings during this period, three were for flower and figure studies.

Susan with flowers

Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / Susan with flowers 1962 / Oil on canvas / 127.4 x 102.3cm / Gift of Finney Isles and Co. Ltd. 1964 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

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Susan with flowers is the largest work and the only painting in the series in which the model is depicted standing. The considerable publicity given to Olley’s award for this painting reflected the stature of the distinguished presenter, Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968), English art historian and literary critic.

Olley’s painting is, in the words of the then Brisbane art critic, Dr Gertrude Langer, …a decoratively controlled realism and post impressionist colour handled with a flair for bright harmonies.1 It is an astonishing combination of red poinsettias, hippeastrums and hibiscus, and pink watsonias, gerberas and oleanders against a bright blue ground. These colours, together with royal blue and aqua-green, also appear in the model’s dress. The dark pitcher which contains these flowers is set on a red cloth patterned with yellow.

The flowers in the still life of Susan with Flowers could be gathered in virtually any of Brisbane’s sub-tropical gardens. The assemblage of hippeastrums, oleander, poinsettia, watsonias and plumbago is symptomatic of the disorder and lushness of the well-established garden that surrounded Olley’s home, Farndon. In fact such casual assemblages of flowers and foliage were often gathered by Olley in her walks through the suburb for use in her paintings.

Delve deeper: Banana cutters

Margaret Olley / Banana cutters 1963 / Oil on board / 95 x 121cm / Purchased 2014 with funds from Drs Philip and Lenna Smith through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Olley Art Trust
Margaret Olley’s prizewinning painting Banana cutters 1963 being examined by judge James Wieneke / Image courtesy: News Ltd/Newspix

Banana cutters 1963 was Olley’s entry in the 1963 Royal National and Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland Exhibition of Art, in Brisbane, and won First Prize. The male figures are depicted with an innate dignity which is enhanced by Olley’s choice of harmonious hues. Banana cutters was painted in Olley’s studio under the family home, and the bananas depicted were cut from the garden.2

The complex social, historical and aesthetic values makes the painting from this period some of Olley’s most intriguing works from her Brisbane years.

Edited extracts from ‘Margaret Olley’s generous life in art’, Margaret Olley: A Generous Life, QAGOMA, 2019 by Michael Hawker, Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA; and ‘Margaret Olley and the social context of Susan with flowers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000, pp.99-110 by Glenn R. Cooke, former Research Curator, Queensland Heritage, QAGOMA.

Endnotes
1 Langer, Gertrude. ‘Queensland lacks in top painters’. The Courier-Mail [Brisbane], 22 May 1963.
2 Meg Stewart, Margaret Olley: Far from a Still Life, rev. and updated edn, Vintage, Sydney, 2012, p.368.

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Feature image detail: Susan with flowers 1962

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