Margaret Olley's powerful legacy: 'Ben Quilty wouldn't exist without her'

A Brisbane exhibition highlights the artist’s complex relationship with power – while celebrating the irrepressible joy of her work

Staff at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art pop into the Margaret Olley exhibition when they’re having a bad day; it cheers them up, they say.

Olley, the matriarch of Australia’s art scene who died aged 88 in 2011, is best known for her colourful paintings of flowers and cluttered domestic spaces, with paint applied to the canvas in thick strokes. (Her paint was made extra-chunky owing to the cigarettes she ashed on to her palettes.)

The works give viewers a palpable sense of delight, which enters the gallery’s patrons like a shot of adrenaline. “I want to take that one home,” they say, pointing. One woman, a refugee lawyer, shudders when she sees a Queenslander home painted by Olley in 1955. The painting pops, as if in technicolour.

“This is where I grew up!” the woman says. When asked what she’s experiencing, she answers: “Joy.”

Cane Farmer’s House (North Queensland), 1955, by Margaret Olley
‘This is where I grew up!’: Cane Farmer’s House (North Queensland), 1955, by Margaret Olley. Photograph: UNSW Art Collection

Olley has long been revered in the art scene. She was the subject of two Archibald-winning portraits: the first by William Dobell in 1948 when Olley was 25, wearing a self-fashioned dress from parachute silk (her response to a party invitation that stated, “Darling Oll, come dressed as a duchess”).

The second was by Ben Quilty just before to her death; Quilty, probably Australia’s best-known contemporary artist, depicts Olley close up – she wears her trademark inquisitive expression and floppy painter’s hat.

Myriad other portraits of Olley by Australian artists exist. In this sense, Olley was also a muse, albeit a bewildered one: according to Janet Hawley’s book of essays Artists in Conversation, she would often say: “I have no idea why they all want to paint me – I think I look like a pudding.”

Ben Quilty and Margaret Olley stand with Quilty’s Archibald-winning portrait in 2011
Ben Quilty refers to himself as one of Margaret Olley’s ‘ducklings’. His portrait of Olley won the 2011 Archibald prize. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

These works, some of which form Goma’s exhibition Margaret Olley: A Generous Life, reflect the incredible reputation she enjoyed during her lifetime.

She was admired for her honesty (the Brisbane gallery owner Philip Bacon, who exhibited Olley’s works extensively, told Hawley: “Oll is a saint, but not an easy woman … She’ll tell you what is wrong with you, your pictures, your attitude, your gallery. She’ll say, ‘I’m sorry dear, but ... ’”); she nurtured countless Australian artists (Quilty, whose major retrospective is running alongside Olley’s at Goma, refers to himself as one of the many “ducklings” she had under her wing); and she was paid well for her art (in 1962, the Courier-Mail recorded that Olley was the most highly paid female artist in Australia).

It’s unusual – and difficult – for female artists to be celebrated in this country. The artist Elvis Richardson’s Countess Report has been publishing the stats on gender representation in Australian contemporary visual arts since 2008. Data from 2014 shows that more than 74% of local art school graduates are female but, if you look in our state museums – spaces dedicated to the pinnacle of artistic achievement – you’ll find that just 34% of works on show are by women.

An installation view of the Olley exhibition
‘Anyone could live very easily with an Olley painting.’ Photograph: Natasha Harth

Why the gap? The Australian artist Tai Snaith, shortlisted in this year’s World Illustration awards, says it comes down to traditional sexism. “There’s no support for us once you get out there,” she explains. “It’s really difficult to maintain a practice in the dark – to just keep bashing away at this idea of being a professional artist but without anyone giving you opportunities.”

Which makes it all the more interesting that Olley achieved the acclaim and popularity she did during her lifetime. The curator of Goma’s exhibition, Michael Hawker, speculates that her commercial success was – and is – due to the likability of the works. “Anyone could live very easily with an Olley painting,” he says. “There’s nothing aggressive. It’s all about beauty, flora – it’s all the good things.”

And while this may seem like a far less powerful proposition than, say, Quilty’s big, brooding and aggressive works that hang in the rooms adjacentwhat’s such a big deal about a bunch of cornflowers? – they are transformative. Olleys’ paintings lift people’s moods – and this is a form of great power, too.

Margaret Olley painting at Farndon in 1966
Margaret Olley painting at Farndon in 1966. Photograph: Bob Millar/State Library of Queensland

In many ways, Olley’s legacy is that of a powerful and empowering woman. She bought up real estate in Paddington and Newcastle in the 1960s and resold it, making herself independently wealthy. She then used this money, in conjunction with her increasing social capital, to fund the arts, lobby for arts funding and mentor young artists. As Snaith points out: “Ben Quilty wouldn’t exist without Margaret Olley.”

But what about her paintings of Indigenous Australians? Several of these hang in Goma’s exhibition, including some of nude women – all painted in a style that instantly reminds one of male western artists (comparisons were made to Gauguin at the time of their first exhibition in 1962). The models are reclined or otherwise positioned for the viewer to gaze upon their naked forms.

Today it’s hard not to find these works fetishistic. Olley was, after all, fascinated by their skin tones. She did pay her models, but Glenn Cooke, a former curator of decorative arts at the Queensland Art Gallery, has noted that, as far as Olley knew, they never even attended her 1962 show.

The exhibition won Olley accolades (the Bulletin at the time described these works as “literally colossal in power, skill and colour … Margaret Olley has reached the flood tide of her art and has stepped up to the top ranks of our artists”). It was also the show that made her the best-paid female artist in Australia.

Five of the paintings on show at Goma
Five of the paintings on show at Goma. Photograph: Natasha Harth

Olley makes for a fascinating portrait of power: a woman who became a powerful figure in the fine art world, in spite of sexism; empowered herself financially; paved the way for other artists and made it her mission to leverage government support for the arts; painted artworks of Indigenous Australians that reflect a white, fetishistic, traditional male gaze – and won money and acclaim for doing so. Our understanding of her legacy goes beyond the irrepressible joy her paintings still bring – and it’s only just beginning.

• Margaret Olley: A Generous Life and Quilty are both on show at Goma until 13 October


Mia Timpano

The GuardianTramp

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