Hearing that John Olsen is no more is like learning that Uluru has disappeared overnight. A towering presence in Australian art, a larger-than-life personality, Olsen has been a dominant figure in our cultural landscape from the 1960s until the present. Although 95 can be considered a good innings, the artist may have spoiled his own chance for a century with an impulsive trip to central Australia in September, where he ended up in intensive care with a chest infection. His story might have ended like Tolstoy, who died at a lonely railway station, a day’s journey from home. It would have been a disaster to expire so far from the studio.
As it happened, Olsen would pull through and return to Bowral, where he continued to paint for as long as he could hold a brush. A few weeks ago, Tim Olsen showed me pictures of his father looking very frail, but still working cheerfully on a large picture while wearing his trademark black beret.
It was that same indomitable attitude Olsen showed throughout his life, from his student years at the National Art School in the 1950s to his last days. He will be remembered for the exuberance of his work, for his love of poetry, for that fluent, wristy line and bold colour, but Olsen was also prone to periods of introspection. His last major survey, John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, held at the NAS Gallery in late 2021, looked at the dark side of his imagination, revealing an aspect of the artist that rarely made the headlines.
Olsen was born in Newcastle in 1928, during hard economic times. His father, Harry, worked in a clothing store, while his mother, Esma, looked after the domestic duties. When John was seven the family moved to Bondi Beach, allowing a first glimpse of the Harbour that would inspire some of his greatest paintings.
Although the young Olsen was always drawing, his interest in art seems to have been entirely self-generated. He would study with Julian Ashton, Dattilo Rubbo and at East Sydney Tech, sampling everything Sydney had to offer by way of art education. By 1953 he was a ringleader of a group of art students who protested against the relentless conservatism of the Archibald Prize.
Olsen’s first overseas excursion came in 1957, thanks to the patronage of hotelier, Robert Shaw. On that trip Olsen would get a taste of Spanish art, in the form of works by Tàpies and Miró, and meet the Belgian painter, Corneille, one of the members of the CoBrA school (the name being drawn from the artists’ home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). These artists would exert a powerful influence on Olsen’s painting when he returned to Australia.
Back home, his breakthrough picture was Spanish Encounter (1960), which he claimed to have painted in a single night after a lovers’ dispute. The Spanish overtones were obvious, but the work had a unique energy that would become a hallmark of Olsen’s style. He carried this momentum into a series of You Beaut Landscapes that would help change the the way Australians thought of the bush – not as a dry pit of melancholy, as in the works of Russell Drysdale, but a dynamic landscape bursting with life.
Olsen would make his reputation in the 1960s, with the You Beaut Landscapes, expressionist vistas of Sydney Harbour, and a series of ceiling paintings for private patrons. The most famous today is the three-panelled Sydney Sun (1965), in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, a picture that seems to explode in all directions.
While his career was advancing by leaps and bounds, Olsen enjoyed the Bohemian lifestyle, finding no shortage of fellow revellers and female companions. He would be married four times, to Mary Flower, Valerie Strong, Noela Hjorth and Katharine Howard. Of those wives, Valerie has the strongest claims, being the mother of his children, Tim (b.1962) and Louise (b.1964), and a fine painter in her own right who submerged her own artistic aspirations into her husband’s career. Olsen’s first child, Jane (1953 – 2009), was Mary’s daughter, and would be separated from her father for over 20 years.
Olsen was a celebrated teacher, who ran the Bakery Art School in Paddington, from 1967 – 1970, leaving an indelible impression on many would-be artists. Some, like Peter Powditch, would be most impressed by John’s can-do attitude, which gave them the determination to find their own path.
In the early 1970s, Olsen was commissioned to paint a mural for the Sydney Opera House, which was to open on 20 October 1973. That painting, Salute to Five Bells, based on a poem by Kenneth Slessor, would be one of the most difficult tasks of his career, and remains an iconic work. Olsen spent much of that decade driving and flying around Australia, often in company with naturalist Vincent Serventy, immersing himself in the natural world. The most famous of these expeditions was to Lake Eyre, which inspired a long line of paintings and watercolours.
When he left Valerie and the kids to move in with Noela Hjorth in South Australia, in the early 1980s, it was a demonstration of the radical selfishness that was one of the less attractive aspects of Olsen’s personality. He could be generous and charismatic, or utterly self-centred. Bouts of remorse would follow but he was just as likely to offend again. His relations with family and friends followed patterns of neglect and reconciliation, but his innate charm seemed to ensure that he was always forgiven.
Landscape would be Olsen’s main preoccupation for a decade or so and would remain a crucial component of his work, but by the late 1980s he was making figurative paintings that explored his growing sense of mortality. There were reminiscences of Spain, and echoes of works by Old and Modern Masters. The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1994) drew on a poem by W.B Yeats, about inspiration drying up. Perhaps his most poignant work in this regard was Donde Voy? Self-portrait in moments of doubt (1989), which was entered in that year’s Archibald Prize and widely expected to win, only to be pipped by a near-photographic portrait of Elwyn Lynn by Bryan Westwood.
Olsen was furious at the decision, believing that he had been robbed. He would be mollified when his Self-portrait Janus Faced, would take out the 2005 Archibald Prize. Twelve years later he would be found complaining about Mitch Cairns’s Archibald Prize winner, oblivious to the irony that he had once led protests against the narrowness of the trustees’ choices.
With age, and the benefit of a second large retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW, in 2016, Olsen’s status as Australia greatest living painter was set in stone. He will be remembered for the ferocious energy he put into his works, and the love of life that may be sensed in every brushstroke. When he went dark, he could hit a convincing note of tragedy.
One of the peculiar things about Olsen’s illustrious career was that it did not translate into international acclaim. It was as if overseas cognoscenti saw only echoes of European art, being blind to the uniquely Australian elements and the feelings behind the work. Did this worry him? It may have niggled, but Olsen’s natural vitality would not allow him to dwell for long on disappointments. When we look back on this complex man and his achievements, it’s the bright-eyed, charming, self-confident character that one remembers. His biographer, Darlene Bungey, relates how Olsen once claimed that it was most important to look for “the spirit that is beyond the way a thing is painted”. In his own work that spirit will always shine brightly.
John Olsen is survived by his children, Tim and Louise, and his grandchildren.
John Olsen, 21 January 1928 – 11 April 2023
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 April, 202