John Olsen, ‘Lake Alexandrina and Dirt Roads’ (1997-98)

Published June 16, 2023
John Olsen 'Lake Alexandrina and Dirt Roads' (1997-98)

Lake Alexandrina and Dirt Roads 1997-98
oil on canvas
199.0 x 183.0 cm
signed and dated lower right: John/ Olsen/ 97-98
signed and inscribed verso: Dirt Roads & Lake John/ Olsen

Savill Galleries, Sydney
Private collection, Melbourne
John Olsen: Recent Work 1995-1998, Olsen Carr Art Dealers, Sydney, 7-25 April 1998, cat.13 (illus. exhibition catalogue)
John Olsen, Savill Galleries, Sydney, 2-26 June 1999
Australian Painting, Savill Galleries, Sydney, 16 May – 17 June 2001, cat.27 (label attached verso, illus. exhibition catalogue)
Auty, G., ‘Grasping the Subject’, The Weekend Australian, Sydney, 11-12 April 1998
Hart, D., John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000, p.234
Zimmer, J., and McGregor, K., John Olsen: Journeys into the ‘You Beaut Country’, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2007, pp.200-201 (illus.), 315

Reserve $225,000 Estimate $250,000 – $350,000


In the early 1970s John Olsen began travelling to remote locations with friends such as filmmakers, Bob Raymond and Ken Taylor, and naturalist, Vincent Serventy. This provided a relief from the stressful business of finishing his Sydney Opera House mural, Salute to Five Bells, but it would also exact a fundamental change in his approach to landscape painting. The riotous squiggles and crowded surfaces of the You Beaut Country series or his celebrations of Sydney Harbour, gave way to a new appreciation of negative space. Looking at the landscape from the air, standing at the edge of a great lake, Olsen had discovered the power of the Void.

In 1971 he woud visit Far North Queensland, the Coorong in South Australia, and Arnhem Land, as part of the team filming a series called Wild Australia for the ABC. For our purposes, it’s the Coorong, a famous wetland and bird sanctuary, that’s most significant. It was here that Olsen caught his first glimpse of Lake Alexandrina, on the South Australian coast roughly 100 kms east of Adelaide.

A large body of fresh water, Lake Alexandrina takes most of its flow from the Murray River, emptying into the Great Australian Bight near Kangaroo Island. It is roughly one fifteenth the size of Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre, which plays a bigger role in Olsen’s private mythology, but as subject matter it had the advantage of never running dry. The artist would return to Lake Alexandrina on many occasions.

Whatever Olsen felt about lake Alexandrina would be overwhelmed by his first experience of Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre in 1974, which would become a personal sacred site. This vast arena, three times the size of Sydney Harbour, that only fills with water in years of exceptional rainfall, inspired an almost mystical sense of awe. According to his biographer, Darleen Bungey, Olsen “likened it to a symbol for Tao and described it as ‘the lowest place into which everything flows back… the unconscious plug hole of Australia.” [1]

The artist was in the happy position that his first sight of the lake was in flood – only the fourth occasion this had happened during the 20th century. In fact, 1974 saw the highest ever recorded water level of six metres.

It was only when the waters receded that Olsen realised life was also receding, leaving fish gasping and cattle bogged in the mud. The spectacle was being enacted in front of his eyes on a cosmic scale. By 1977-78, Kati Thanda had reverted to being a dry salt pan that wouldn’t fill again until 1999. It’s appropriate that the last major painting Olsen completed before his death in April this year was The lake recedes, which featured in the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. It shows the water draining from Kati Thanda, even as the strength drained from the artist’s 93-year-old body.

Lake Alexandrina and dirt roads is a far less melancholy proposition. The top two-thirds of the canvas depicts the pale landscape at the edge of the lake, rimmed at the north by a band of red earth more characteristic of central Australia. Encroaching on both sides we find trees and scrub, which also find their way onto islets and sandbanks in the lake itself.

It’s a microcosm of the Australian landscape, with a vast dry expanse enclosed by water on one side and vegetation on the other. The void may dominate the composition, but this does not have a negative connotation. Olsen often spoke of his amazement at the inability of the early settlers to actually see the landscape, which they persistently understood as barren and empty. It was a culturally determined blindness, based on a nostalgia for England’s “green and pleasant land”.

Olsen sought alternative ways of seeing, in Aboriginal art, which took an expansive map-like approach to the country; and in the asethetics of traditional Chinese landscape painting, in which every emptiness was also a fullness. He was quite explicit about the connection, writing: “my devotion to Chinese art and philosophy find a fufilment in the experience.” [2]

For the Chinese painters, to leave an empty space was a way of respecting that which was unseen and unknowable. It signified a spiritual relationship to the land, rather than an attempt to accurately depict everything that met the eye.

This is very much the case with Olsen’s landscapes, which are more concerned with spirit than image. Indeed, he once told a Radio Times journalist: “being in the bush is the most perfect state of grace you can imagine.” [3] His sweeping lines, soft washes, and quick dabs of the brush, denote flows of vital energy. He wants us to feel the pleasure and excitement he experiences in this landscape. It’s not a question of how much detail he has been willing to leave out, but whether we are able to share his passionate conviction that every void is an invitation to dream.

[1] Darleen Bungey, ‘John Olsen: An Artist’s Life’, ABC Books, Sydney, 2014, p.333

[2] Quoted by Deborah Edwards, in ‘The Littoral and the Void’, in John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2017. p.32

[3] Darleen Bungey, op. cit..p.334