Menzies Art Brands



John Olsen is widely acknowledged as being Australias greatest living artist. Accolades in later life, including the Wynne Prize for landscape painting in 1985 (which he first won in 1969), the Sulman Prize for genre painting in 1989, and the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 2007 at the age of 77, are not only a testament to the longevity of his career, but also a reflection of the diversity of his subject matter.

The artist trained with such accomplished artists as Dattilo Rubbo (1870-1955), John Passmore (1914-2004), Desiderius Orban (1884-1986) and Godfrey Miller (1893-1964). With Rubbo he worked from plaster casts, while his training under Passmore encompassed activities ranging from painting freely on swathes of newspaper to painstakingly rendering discreet areas of colour with small brushes.1 He further built on this academic training by studying printmaking in Paris.

Following this formal training, Olsen was later to unleash his natural joie de vivre and distinctive style of mark-making upon a myriad of surfaces, including the ceiling of Sydney gallerist Frank McDonalds dining room (a mural now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria) and the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, a work which remains in situ to this day. When not tackling major commissions such as these, the artist has continued to work with a diverse range of media including oil, watercolour, printmaking, sculpture and even tapestry, creating works which now reside in major public and private collections.

Despite spending extended periods living overseas and travelling widely within Australia, Olsen has continued to return to the subject of Sydney Harbour. While his most recent biographer credits the 1956 oil, Dry Salvages, with being the beginning of Johns lifelong love affair with Sydney Harbour,2 the artist has continued his long association with this iconic body of water through the epic Salute to Five Bells of 1972 in the Sydney Opera House to later career works, such as this effervescent watercolour, Harbour Tidal Pool 1993.

The linear formations of Dry Salvages 1956, which are inspired by cranes looming over the rapidly changing Sydney Harbour, can be contrasted with the eerie aquatic quality of the iconic 1972 Opera House mural, which conflates the concepts of above and below, portraying multiple perspectives at the same time. The same device is at work in Harbour Tidal Pool 1993, which simultaneously represents the antlike (or should we say froglike?) peregrinations of creatures both above and below the surface of the water.

However, these activities are hinted at rather than directly portrayed, with the tell-tale ripples and fluid lines of the artists mark-making creating a sense of energy and dynamic movement, while the agents of this dynamism remain strangely fugitive, save for the presence of what appear to be numerous pairs of eyes peering out from the composition.

In his Art in America review of the artists 1992 retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, painter Robert Berlind (born 1938, American) stated that Olsen employs simultaneously the contrary vantages of naturalist and geographer or, to put it another way, the viewpoints of frog and eagle, also crediting him with being a master watercolourist.3

As well as conflating perspective, Olsen confounds our sense of time, leaving the viewer unclear as to whether the myriad marks which indicate movement allude to events that are about to happen, are in the process of happening or have only just occurred. It is this ability to combine the immediate and the eternal, the flash of momentary movement and the inexorable lapping of the tide, which imbues this 1993 watercolour with an intensely meditative quality.

In Harbour Tidal Pool Olsen brings a freshness and immediacy to a subject with which he has been engaging for decades.

1. Hart, D. John Olsen, Craftsman House, Roseville East, 1991, p.11 and Darleen Bungey, John Olsen: An Artists Life, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2014, pp. 47, 70
2. Bungey, D., p.110
3. Berlind, R., quoted in Olsen Irwin Gallery n.d., John Olsen, accessed 16 August 2015,

Anne Phillips MA

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