Review: Margaret Olley: A Generous Life

The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) honours the life and work of one of Australia’s most renowned painters in its latest exhibition.


Born in Lismore, but a true Queenslander at heart, Margaret Olley established herself in the mid-20th century art world with her beautiful use of colour and technique.

Her favourite subjects were often the mundane features of everyday life such as flowers, food and mismatched pottery.

She was the recipient of the Mosman Art Prize in 1947 and has influenced the work of Australian greats such as William Dobell and Archibald prize winner Ben Quilty.

Our view:

Olley’s still-life oil paintings are steeped in Australiana symbolism and create a nostalgic longing for Queensland summers spent in the backyard, picking flowers and enjoy lazy afternoon teas. Her time at Somerville House and in the suburbs of Brisbane are reflected in the vibrant yellows, reds and oranges central to her work.

Every flower creates a unique ‘conversation’ between painter and viewer that cannot be defined or replicated. A trip down memory lane is never complete without red hibiscuses and orange nasturtiums.    

Bananas from the Garden Farndon Margaret Olley painting

Bananas from the garden, Farndon; 1974-75 

GOMA’s sterile atmosphere, however, fails to capture or enhance the comforting Queensland homeliness of her work. The only nod towards the era of Hills Hoists and humid afternoons is the fretwork archways and uninspiring fake flowers. Without the haphazard comfort that a lived in family home brings, Olley’s work is reduced to flowers on the wall.

The biggest standouts of the exhibition are works not even created by Olley but instead painter Ben Quilty. Along the ground floor, the gallery corridor walls feature Quilty’s chalk portraits of Olley in her later years, which perfectly capture the lines and folds of a life lived among the ordinarily beautiful.

Quilty’s other work is his Archibald prize-winning portrait of Olley, created with neutral coloured splashes of highly-texturized oil paint set against a rose pink wall. It is the focal point of the last room and holds viewers for longer than any other piece of work in the gallery – a disservice to the skill of Olley’s work. 

Lemons and oranges Margaret Olley painting

Lemons and oranges; 1964

For those fans of European Impressionism, the exhibition also boasts Banks of the Marne by Paul Cezanne, on loan from the Art Gallery NSW.


Michael Hawker


15 June – 13 October, Gallery of Modern Art
Free admission