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Margaret Olley: A Generous Life at GOMA

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by Marina Marangos (subscribe)
http://www.mezzemoments.blogspot.com
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A generous life we can all share in
In the words of her good friend Barry Humphries, who wrote a number of odes celebrating Margaret Olley:

Today we celebrate her life in art

To overlook her genius would be folly

How, you might wonder, can we even start

To sing the praises of Miss Margaret Olley

There were many at GOMA today, to sing her praises, not least two of her very good friends, Quentin Bryce and Philip Bacon, who spoke about her with much affection and admiration.

Quentin Bryce and Philip Bacon
Quentin Bryce and Philip Bacon


They spoke about her enduring relationship with Northern Queensland, where she spent some idyllic childhood years, eventually settling in Brisbane, and going to school at Somerville House where she showed a distinct disinterest in learning. Thankfully, her art teacher Caroline Barker had spotted her talent and encouraged her to concentrate on it. She went to NSW to college and after graduation and as a young painter she was soon flung into some unexpected and unwanted attention when William Dobbell won the Archibald Prize in 1948 for his portrait of her.

The William Dobbell Portrait
The William Dobbell Portrait


She escaped to Europe for a while to get away from it and then spent a decade in Brisbane at Farndon her favourite Queenslander, before eventually going to NSW and purchasing her home in Paddington. This was also her studio from where she created her wonderful artwork. This was a place like no other and after her death, Tweed Galleries recreated the Yellow Room book by book, pile by pile, dried flower by dried flower. If you haven't visited, do try and see it, it is quite memorable. While seemingly chaotic, this is where Margaret flourished and she would get very annoyed if anyone moved anything out of her perceived order and she would start painting after painting, there moving to different parts of the studio.
Margaret in her home
Margaret in her home

The interior of rooms was the subject of many paintings and she was fascinated to capture the intricacies and light of many of them. Notice how in this one she appears as a reflection from the mirror, almost like another item on the mantelpiece.
One of the interiors 1970
One of the interiors 1970


Philip Bacon related how she hated white walls and once famously made him paint the walls of his gallery as she was loath to exhibit her art on them. The exhibition is divided into three main sections. What is wonderful is that the Gallery has recreated the weatherboard wooden walls of a Queenslander and painted them in her favourite colours of duck egg blue and green as well as muddy pink, which was the colour of her house in Paddington. The works pop out of the walls and you can immediately understand why she disliked plain white walls as a background. The first Gallery concentrates on some of her lesser-known work which included the drawings of some of well known and loved buildings both in Queensland and abroad. Here is one of them, the Hellenic House in Brisbane.

Hellenic House
Hellenic House

This first gallery also displays some of her work with Aboriginal models, often looking a little sad and pensive, perhaps drawing attention to their hardship and history.
One of the Aboriginal sitters
One of the Aboriginal sitters


The second gallery is probably my favourite with a lot of her still life paintings and some interiors which are so complex, colourful and joyful. Her paintings are never dull or boring. When she was going through some of the more challenging times in her life the colours became more sombre. She loved her flowers and her vases, her cluttered surfaces and ornate surroundings.






The Third Gallery is a tribute to the title chosen for this exhibition, which could not be more apt. From the very start and perhaps coming from the generosity and hospitality that her mother displayed at all times, Margaret too went through life being generous and hospitable to many. Her dinner parties were lively affairs and her love of young artists meant that they were given a step up when she bought their art and asked big galleries to display the paintings. She was formidable in her views about what art galleries should buy and was instrumental in the acquisition of some significant paintings in NSW because of her generosity but also her drive to acquire the paintings she liked. The acquisition of a Cezanne for the Gallery of NSW was one such campaign which she started by generously donating one million dollars towards the cost of buying it. The gallery then had to find some 16 million more which they did with her support and backing and here it is:
The Cezanne she helped purchase
The Cezanne she helped purchase


The exhibition also contains a number of self-portraits as well as portraits painted by others of her as she was clearly a muse to a number of artists. Ben Quilty asked to paint her and she eventually agreed and he won the Archibald Prize with her portrait a portrait of Margaret as an older person but with no less a twinkle in her eye. His exhibition and the portrait will come to GOMA in two weeks time and it is hotly anticipated.

Portrait of Margaret in later life
Portrait of Margaret in later life


She never married or had children. Her love was art. Her life was never boring nor still and hers was not a selfish one. She loved starting new paintings but was loathe to finish them. Perhaps it was because she loved them too much and just wanting to improve on them all the time. She was preparing for another exhibition when she died at the age of 88.

Her legacy will live on because she speaks a universal truth and an affirmation of life which everyone wants to be part of. This is a truly wonderful exhibition and we are so lucky that this has been so carefully curated by Michael Hawker and displayed so beautifully for us all to see - free

There is also a very informative film made about her life which is part of the exhibition.

Go along to this memorable exhibition by pressing on this link for more details 'A Generous Life'.
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Why? A wonderful look at the life of Margaret Olley.
When: 15th June to 13th Oct 2019.
Phone: T: 61 (0)7 3840 7303
Where: Stanley Place, South Brisbane Queensland 4101, Australia
Cost: Free !
Your Comment
I am a big fan of Margaret and I can't wait to go to this exhibition.
by May Cross (score: 3|4852) 25 days ago
Great article Marina!
by Amanda I (score: 2|819) 28 days ago
Im looking forward to seeing her paintings and finding out more about her.
What a wonderful story. I wish I could have known more about her when she was alive. Thanks for the story.
by ali (score: 0|6) 19 days ago
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