Menzies Art Brands



John Olsen (born 1928) has cultivated an impressive career spanning over six decades. His distinctive visual language combined with an intimate relationship with the Australian landscape sees his artworks propelled into a sphere of greatness unlike any other artist. We are enthralled by Olsens unique and deep understanding of the Australian landscape that he renders with colour and tenacity in a truly spiritual nature. What sets Olsen apart from his contemporaries is his childlike optimism
and his boundless energy combined with a masterful use of colour and line as illustrated here in, Rydal Grevilleas and Honeyeaters 1999.

In 1990 John Olsen and his wife Katherine moved to Chapel House at Rydal, near Lithgow in New South Wales, where they lived for ten years. Amongst a population of only eighty people, the quaint town is home to a surfeit of native flora and fauna in a setting of rolling hills resplendent with water systems. It was here that the artist spent many hours in his home studio and on the property contemplating and studying natures splendour. Rydal Grevilleas and Honeyeaters is an exemplary painting created during this inspired chapter of his life. It is a view of the artists local surroundings - and his comfort within this habitat is palpable. As he recalled of the region, The landscape rolls with rounded hills the trees entwine and chatter with each other, pausing only to take note of a large galah.1

Chapel House proved an immense source of inspiration for the artist, the water ways and sweeping valleys surrounding the region are home to an ecosystem of varied and unusual wildlife which were a great source of curiosity, and a place he revisited in his work often.2 In the present work, an interaction of plants and creatures takes place with the grevilleas stretching towards the sun as local honeyeaters fertilise the native flora.

Olsens deep understanding of the unique nuances of the Australian landscape and its continual movement is evident in his empathetic palette of ochres, burnt oranges and pale blues. His application of the drawing-in-paint technique is demonstrated with daubs of primary colours highlighting the fluttering of life present within the composition. The artists immersion in the landscape and his spiritual connection to it pulsate through his line, which is drawn over broad areas of flat colour bringing the canvas to life. The nectar-feeding passerines sweep down from the heavens as in a dance, rejoicing in the beauty of their habitat.

Rydal Grevilleas and Honeyeaters demonstrates a unique stylistic approach often utilised by the artist, abstracting from the traditional fore, middle and background format with his other-worldly aerial viewpoint. Olsens employment of earthy terracotta and ochre hues is a display of methodical simplification. Not unlike many of his landscape paintings, these colours evoke a sense of Australian spirit and combined with his expressive use of line, refers to the lands indigenous owners. As Jenny Zimmer and Ken McGregor note, Australian Aboriginal culture is a perfect example of Olsens concept of all-at-one-ness. However, while he is highly appreciative of Aboriginal art, Olsen admits himself to be - correctly and understandably - at a cultural remove from it.3

John Olsen is the recipient of many prestigious arts prizes and is one of Australias most celebrated artists. He has inspired and influenced through his art, his teaching and his vibrant personality enriching Australia and Australians observation of nature and her perennial beauty.  

1. Hart, D., John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p.238
2. Ibid, p.224
3. McGregor, K., Olsen, J. & Zimmer, J., John Olsen: Journeys Into the You Beauty Country, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2007, p.155

Tessa Dorman MA (Art History and Theory)

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