Try as I might, I can’t remember the first time I met John Olsen, although it must have been in the mid-1980s. What I do recall is that even then, he was self-consciously the great man of Australian art – especially after the recent deaths of Fred Williams and Russell Drysdale. As the years rolled by, the other contenders for the title – Nolan, Boyd, Whiteley, Smart – would fall away, leaving John in undisputed first place.
Everyone remembers John’s grin, and his up-front way of talking. He was outspoken in his opinions, pugnacious and full of mischief. In an artworld in which people are often worried about making enemies, he seemed supremely indifferent to what anybody thought or said about him. When I once called him “the old egomaniac” in an article, Tim Olsen told me his father was delighted with the description. “Where e-go,” he said, “there I-go!”
I recollect on another occasion that he was a little peeved when I pointed out in a review that the title of his published diaries, Drawn from Life (1997) was shared with the autobiography of E.H. Shepard, who illustrated the Winnie the Pooh stories.
Though forcefully expressed, John’s opinions were not infallible, and there were plenty of occasions he seemed to forget that he had been a radical young avant-gardist in the 1950s and 60s, while he railed against the decadence of the present day. The classic instance was his outrage at Mitch Cairns’s winning Archibald entry of 2017 – a startling statement from a man who had led student protests against the conservatism of the judges’ choices in 1953. He rang me to complain while I was witnessing the announcement! Did it matter to John if he seemed to contradict himself? Not in the slightest. Like one of his favourite poets, Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes.
John’s overall attitude towards life and art might be characterised as Romantic. He loved the life of the artist, the joy of painting and sketching in the open air, and the hard labour in the studio. He was a gregarious character who revelled in the sensuous pleasures of food and drink. A brilliant cook, he was justly famous for his paella. Although he was no oil painting himself, he had a rugged charm and a seductive banter that many women found irresistible. He outlived four wives and numerous scandals. If his behaviour could be selfish and deplorable, he had a knack for always being forgiven. He was a true hedonist, unwilliing to deny himself a pleasure even when he realised it would lead to a good deal of remorse. If he had had a coat of arms, the motto would have been: “Why can’t I?”
Although John would occasionally try on the role of ‘responsible adult’, it would be no more than play-acting. In an interview he told me he had to live in Bowral because Sydney allowed too many temptations and distractions:
“That bitch goddess Sydney has an effect on me,” he said, “– that blue, bloody bitch. And I think as you get older you’ve got to attempt to be wise. You’ve got to understand yourself, you’ve got to come to terms with your strengths – and that’s important, because sometimes you don’t recognize what your strengths are – and of course, weaknesses.”
Despite this attempt to display the wisdom of age, when it came to “weaknesses”, John had the ability to make every weakness sound like an outstanding virtue. His modesty was so fluently expressed it could never have been sincere. No matter how gloomy or depressed he became – as we see in his two Archibald Prize entries: Donde Voy: Self portrait in moments of doubt (1989) and Self-portrait Janus Faced (2005) – he had an incredible capacity for bouncing back.
Had he ever decided on another profession John would have been an excellent actor. He could recite poetry with great gusto and seemed comfortable with public speaking. On the day of the opening of his 2016 retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, he told the same jokes at the evening lunch as he had at the media preview, without missing a beat. He was a born performer, whether holding a paintbrush or a microphone. The black beret he wore was a proud – if slightly comical – symbol of his profession as an artist. His biographer, Darlene Bungey, quotes two women in John’s life, who decided: “he needed to be famous”.
As far back as 1967, Patrick McCaughey wrote a review in which he attacked John’s joie-de-vivre and spontaneity, but those same qualities would persist throughout his career, winning him countless admirers. Indeed, there’s something tremendously seductive in an artist who consistently strives to hit a positive note. (It didn’t hurt Matisse’s career!).
In his last survey exhibition, John Olsen: Goya’s Dog (National Art School Galelry, 2021), a collection of dark, introspective works was offset by dazzling pictures such as Golden summer, Clarendon (1983) and Where the bee sucks there suck I (1984-86), showing how powerfully the artist’s love of life kept surging back to the surface.
For every critic who disliked John’s showmanship there were hundreds of people willing to succumb to his charm. When I texted a message of condolence to Tim Olsen this week, he fired back telling me that his father admired my “true love of artists”. Well, some artists more than others. As an artist and a human being, John Olsen had his share of ups and downs, but when the dust has settles, we will all agree there was a great deal to command our admiration.
John Olsen, 21 January 1928 – 11 April 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April, 2022