A year ago, the new diagnostic bible for psychiatrists, the DSM 5, was published and a new disorder was invented. Hoarding disorder is defined as the acquisition of and failure to discard possessions that are of limited value, leading to clutter and rendering rooms non-functional whilst compromising safety and hygiene. Thankfully, the celebrated Australian artist, Margaret Olley, passed away 2 years before the invention of a disorder that would have boxed her into a treatable diagnosis, rather than respecting her as the inspiration and National Treasure that she was.
Olley’s ‘clutter’ from the terrace house she owned in Paddington in Sydney’s eastern suburbs has been meticulously transported to the Tweed Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah where an exact recreation of part of her home and studio now stands as the Margaret Olley Art Centre (MOAC).
Olley, who was born in Lismore NSW, initially bequeathed the contents of her home and $1 million to The Lismore Regional Gallery. However, the Lismore City Council weren’t convinced of the benefits of building an Olley wing, so the next choice was the region where Olley spent much of her childhood on a sugar cane farm on the Tweed River. The Tweed Council had a more welcoming attitude and Lismore’s loss became Murwillumbah’s gain.
Susi Muddiman, Tweed Gallery’s Director, grew up in Lismore herself. She says she has now “gotten over the guilt” of the Tweed Regional Gallery winning the new art centre over Lismore and is clearly thrilled to have MOAC based in the Tweed.
Muddiman was hands on with the painstaking move from Sydney to the Tweed, even packing a few boxes herself. There are 22,000 pieces in the recreation of Olley’s house and more in storage. Even some of the original door frames and windows were brought to their new home at MOAC. Although much of the dust and smell of the old house still permeates the rooms, the only items that were professionally cleaned before being laid out at the gallery were the kilim rugs. However, any clean freaks viewing the exhibition will soon be won over by the fact that the apparent chaos is more organised than it first appears.
All vases, flowers, bottles, pots, ribbons and brick-a-brack are thoughtfully placed as if in readiness for the artist’s next still life painting. Many items were also deliberately stacked as props to help Margaret move around the house as she became increasingly debilitated with age. Where there were no props to help, there was ‘Moses’, her walking frame, replete with Chanel ribbons and a horn.
The entire house was crammed full of items to enable Olley to paint in all parts of the house depending on where the light was. Where she painted was at the mercy of the light.
The famous Yellow Room, which Olley painted numerous times, was the brightest room until the garden became overgrown and covered the windows. Olley loved the ramshackle nature of the garden. She even kept dead flowers in the house because they too represented life.
Muddiman says she admires Margaret’s resolve in choosing early on to paint still life and interiors, and to stick with that decision. In the 60’s there were plenty of Dobell-esque landscape paintings around that were a little dark and foreboding. The art world was very much a man’s world at the time.
Olley could not command the same money for her paintings as her male counterparts, yet she was uncompromising in painting her genre, and indeed, making art the centre of her world. However, she did become overwhelmed at the attention she received after William Dobell won the Archibald prize for his painting of her in 1948. She left Australia for the UK at the time because the media attention she received was so intrusive.
Susi Muddiman wonders about the reasons for the attention.
“Was the attention because Dobell’s painting was the winner of the Archibald, or because she was so beautiful and Dobell had painted her so flamboyantly? Or was it simply because he had chosen to paint her?”
In 2011, Olley was the subject of a painting by a second Archibald prize winner, Ben Quilty. While that painting is on loan to the Art Gallery of NSW right now, Muddiman is confident that Quilty will eventually loan his painting to MOAC. There are already 33 paintings gifted to the Tweed gallery painted by Margaret herself, as well as other artists’ works she had owned. They are on display inside the house at the centre. The gift is enduring, and more works will be acquired in July this year.
It is hoped that private collectors will be encouraged to gift their works to the gallery in future. Already, one Brisbane collector has donated a painting of Farndon, the Olley family home in Brisbane that burnt down in 1982. Many of Olley’s early works were unfortunately lost in the fire, so it was particularly exciting to have had that painting donated only one day after MOAC opened.
While Muddiman says the Margaret Olley Art Centre is a huge commitment to have, she is buoyed by the “sensational” feedback she has received. She is finding interest in MOAC incredible, and while she expected interest to have plateaued by now, it is just getting busier and busier. The Margaret Olley Art Centre is a local gem we are very fortunate to have in our region.
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Margaret Olley paintings from Philip Bacon Galleries Brisbane are on loan to the Margaret Olley Art Centre until September this year.
The Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre is open 10am to 5pm Wednesday to Sunday. Admission is free.