23. JOHN OLSEN
At the age of ninety John Olsen is the grand old man of Australian Art, still active with an energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age. His contribution to Australia has been justly recognised with all manner of honours and awards, but more importantly, there is enormous public affection both for the man and his work. He is one of those rare artists who has been able to create not just a recogisable style, but a new way of seeing the world that has deeply moved generations of Australians. A key to Olsen’s appeal lies in his development of a technique where drawing and painting are one. The act of creation is clear, with each line and flick of paint part of an orchestrated process.
The hand and eye of the artist is evident in every part of the work, the act of creation infusing the painted surface with an irrepressible energy.
Like many young artists, Olsen travelled overseas to gain knowledge and experience, spending three years abroad, much of which was spent in Spain. The brilliant light and vibrant culture could not have been more different to the place of his birth in Australia’s industrial heartland, Newcastle. Returning to Australia he settled in Sydney, bringing his excitement and enthusiasm for the Mediterranean life to the harbour city. His vision of Australia was further cross-pollinated with readings of the modern classics and the buzz of intellectual ferment that was the hallmark of the ‘Sydney Push’, the artists and writers who met, drank and argued at the Royal George Hotel. Writers and commentators like Robert Hughes, Clive James and Germaine Greer cut their teeth in fervent discussion with the painters and musicians of the day. Olsen thrived in the excitement and change of 1960s, able to make a powerful impression with his art, but also to write on art with equal clarity and wit.
As each decade went by Olsen’s position was reinforced, aided by important commissions that put his work permanently in front of Australian audiences. His Five Bells mural for the Sydney Opera House linked him with the nation’s most important cultural icon. Journeys into the outback gave him an intimate knowledge of the landscape at its most awe-inspiring, but also the animal and birdlife that inhabited the wilderness. Lake Eyre was particularly important and Olsen drew inspiration from its changes from flood to dessicated saltpan. His inspiration in the grand schemes of nature was matched by an infinite pleasure in the humble and the minute – the green tree frog became a talisman whose pop-eyed smile peered out from a thousand drawings and prints.
Olsen’s love for the life and culture of Spain never waned and he returned to Mediterranean themes many times over his long career. He was particularly taken with Spanish food and made the paella his signature dish, both in the kitchen and on the canvas. The lively mix of rice and seafood was closely analogous to Olsen’s paintings – bright and colourful with a mix of textures that spoke of the energy of its creation. In 1993-94 he created a series of works under the umbrella title of ‘Paella’, a tribute to the life and colour of the Mediterranean. A work from that series, Sweeping St Mark’s Square, Venice is Olsen at his whimsical best, the brushed calligraphic line producing an energetic grandeur to a seemingly simple subject. Every morning at dawn a small group of workers step out with traditional brooms to sweep the great square clean in preparation for the invasion of another horde of international tourists. Like penitents giving thanks for their luck to be living in such a beautiful place, the humble act recognises the importance of the place.
Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA MPhil