Margaret Olley: Far from a Still Life
Updated: Jul 19
Claire Kinder, MA (Art Curating) student
This review has been adapted from a paper written in partial fulfilment of the assessment requirements for the coursework unit The Art Museum: Past, Present and Future (ARHT6935)
In the Autumn of 2011 Ben Quilty’s now famous portrait of Margaret Olley was announced as the winner of the prestigious annual Archibald Prize. This would become an iconic piece of Australian portraiture and one of the last portraits in which Olley featured as a life model. Just two months later, news of her passing permeated the art world. Australia had lost both an artist and a muse. What felt like an unexpected turn of events for many was something that Olley herself had seen coming:
I’m like an old tree dying and setting forth flowers as fast as it can, while it still can. 
This proliferation of work in her later years has become the nucleus for the Margaret Olley Art Centre at the Tweed Regional Gallery and, one might say, its main attraction. Visitors to the gallery over the Christmas 2022 period were treated to ‘The Art of Flowers’ - an exhibition focusing entirely on Olley’s floral still-lifes. In this space, dedicated to her work, with changing exhibitions focusing on a different area of her artistic life bi-annually, one may slowly build up an appreciation for Olley’s artistic genius.
‘Margaret Olley: Far from a Still Life’ is the latest exhibition to inhabit the Olley Centre. The title is derived from the artist’s biography, first published in 2005. The true attraction of this new hang, however, is as it is the culmination of exhibitions past. It is, therefore, a radical departure from the traditional curation within the centre, which generally relies on thematic cues like ‘flowers’ for inspiration.
The success of the exhibition rests on two key factors. The first of these is the selection of works. As an internationally renowned Australian artist who displayed quite the competency for colour and composition from an early age, it would be a challenge to find an Olley work unworthy of donning the gallery’s walls. The second factor is the draw of the gallery itself. Its location in the regional town of Murwillumbah means that it is some hours’ travel from any major city. Its placement within an extinct volcanic crater, however, surrounded by fertile agricultural land and ragged mountain ranges, has earned it a reputation as one of Australia’s most awe-inspiring gallery destinations.
For regular gallery goers, it is almost a shock to learn that admission to ‘Far from a Still Life’ is free. This only serves to make coffee and cake on the cantilevered café balcony all the more palatable. Once visitors have had an elegant sufficiency, they are enticed to wander down the hallway, which promises other intriguing and equally noteworthy exhibitions. We must not turn our head, however, because at the end of this passage we find the Olley Centre, where ‘Far from a Still life’ currently resides.
Upon arrival, visitors are almost always treated to a warm greeting by one of the convivial gallery volunteers. This is in contrast to a visit to one of the larger institutions, where visitors are often treated with an almost clinical indifference. From here, visitors can either guide themselves around the exhibition, or, gift of the gab permitting, they might be lucky enough to have a learned volunteer guide them through the highlights. This affability and intimacy serves as a reminder of Olley’s own welcoming nature and her fondness for friendship.
Friendship was almost as significant a part of Olley’s life as art. This point is brought beautifully to the fore by the large wooden dining table set up in the middle of the first (and last) room. We are reminded immediately of late nights and early mornings spent with family and friends. An activity set up on the table, designed for this exhibition, prompts visitors to write a postcard, which the gallery will then post free of charge in honour of Olley’s generosity and devotion to her own circle of friends. This addition to the gallery space also echoes Olley’s own dining table that sits in the middle of a more permanent fixture in the gallery – the recreation of her Duxford St home in Paddington. Most impressively, over 20,000 items from her home were documented, transported, and meticulously placed in their new location in the Tweed gallery.
For many visitors, the recreation of Olley’s house and studio is the gallery’s main drawcard and most impressive talking point. Indeed, for those whose interests lie more in musicological artefacts than art, this installation is a cabinet of curiosities on a grand scale. The centrepiece in every sense, offers viewers a glimpse into the life of the artist. What looks at first glance to be the home of a hoarder is, in fact, a trove of treasures collected from across the globe and carefully curated as the inspiration for her artwork. If visitors look close enough, they may even have the good fortune to observe a glimpse of a still life translated onto canvas.
Tucked away in the corner of the gallery is a research library where visitors can retreat and view the ABC documentary ‘Margaret Olley A Life in Paint.’ We are led to believe that Olley wanted her home to be simultaneously her studio and her stage. However, as the exhibition title suggests, this is a place that is far from still. There is life all around the building, peering in. The radio plays steadfastly in the background as if to say, ‘life still inhabits this place’. And, despite all these years, or perhaps because of them, a musky smell still drifts from the interior – this is a place that life will never leave.
After her passing, the items Olley collected as her subject matter have taken on a life of
their own. There is now a subgenre of art inspired by Olley’s house and the curiosities it contains. In 2018, Tweed Regional Gallery’s head curator Ingrid Hedgcock responded to this trend by mounting an entire exhibition entitled ‘A Painter’s House’ that featured work by contemporary artists inspired by items within the house. As part of the press release for this exhibition Hedgecock remarked, “While [Olley] worked, her studio changed like a vibrant living ecosystem of art and life entwined; in her words, it was ‘a subject of endless possibilities'."  Although the subject matter for contemporary artists is somewhat more static, the fact that this is a place of endless possibilities still stands. This is exemplified by the small collection of artist responses included in the current exhibition, which serve as a reminder that Olley’s life and legacy will always be far from still.
One such work of particular note is Monica Rohan’s Contain, which was inspired by her time as artist in residence in the Nancy Fairfax studio on the Tweed Regional Gallery premises. Gallery director Susi Muddiman observes that Rohan explored themes like subjectivity by including depictions of herself in her work:
"Patterns and colours swallow, obscure, reveal and bind depictions of the artist's self and on closer inspection and further contemplation, Rohan's undeniably beautiful compositions reveal an uneasy retreat from the outside world ... Process and meaning are inextricably linked as her meditative and obsessive focus on pattern and detail redirects her own anxious tension into creative expression" 
This work has been on display on many occasions now and hangs once again in stark contrast to other artists’ responses, like the hyper-realistic renditions of her pottery. Its return to this space suggests to viewers that it is okay to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of beauty that envelops us. Being enveloped by beauty is itself a beautiful thing.
Hedgecock’s choice to include works from artists that were inspired by Olley means that a selection of portraits of the artist could also be included in the hang as the inspiration took on a biographical undertone. This encompassed a wide range of artistic mediums from photography to sketch and, of course, oil on canvas. Some of a young Olley were the subject of scrutiny for gallery staff, who suggested that the artist lacked the same mastery of colour and composition that Olley had herself grasped from a young age.
Alongside this portrait hung one of Ben Quilty’s sketches taken during the production of his award-winning portrait of Olley and another in which he captures what seems to be Olley’s hesitance as the subject of an artist who had only just become her acquaintance.
Standing against the same wall on which her portraits hang is a glass cabinet that is another permanent feature of the Olley Centre. The objects inside are changed regularly to reflect the objects seen in the works on display. This, coupled with a seating area with iPads, encourages visitors to sit and draw what they see. This might seem like an activity more suited to children, or as an opportunity to step away from the stimulation of such a vibrant exhibition, but it is an important way to begin to understand some of the processes behind Olley’s art. Processes like curation, observation, and patience. It primes us to slow down and use these same skills when looking at the works on display.
Now that the viewer has been primed to look deeply at the objects and to ponder the work with a more curious eye, they may pick up on the fact that the main walls of the gallery have been painted to pull out or compliment the colours of the works that adorn them.
Olley herself is said to have avoided having her work displayed on white walls. With a keen eye, however, the viewer may pick up on the off-white walls that house some of her earlier works, like her paintings from her travels or her monotypes. These include subtle blues and greens, colours that would have been brought elegantly to light on a painted wall. There are also empty white walls at the rear of the gallery that do not seem to be utilised from one exhibition to the next. Although this is at the back of Olley’s house installation, the architecture of the building, coupled with the jaw dropping views out the windows, signal a lost opportunity for a creative curatorial approach. Especially as these windows are utilised in other areas of the gallery as an integrated part of the curation.
One can’t help but think that if Olley was curating this herself, there would be colour everywhere and every corner would abound with ‘endless possibilities’. Having forgiven the white walled blunder however, the visitor leaves the exhibition fully satiated. The sense of calm that one adopts after viewing Olley’s still lifes extends as one leaves the gallery. Driving back through the sleepy scenery of Murwillumbah, one already knows one will return here. The allure of this stunning building, and its colourfully captivating and ever-changing contents, is bound to draw us back time after time.
'Winner: Archibald Prize 2011 | Ben Quilty | Margaret Olley,' Art Gallery of New South Wales.
'Margaret Olley's home inspires new works,' Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre, 28 March 2018.
'Finer details inspire artist,' Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2015.
Claire Kinder is a postgraduate student currently studying a Master of Art Curating at the University of Sydney. For her previous studies, she has obtained a Bachelor of Business and Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History. Her thesis explored the political climate and changing social mores of late Victorian Britain. Her interests, however, are wide in range. She is currently working on exhibitions with the aim of Indigenising art museums in a sensitive and inclusive way.