Menzies Art Brands




John Olsen, one of Australias best loved and most highly regarded artists, has achieved a rare feat in capturing the public imagination and the regard of critics and collectors alike. In addition to being awarded an OBE in 1977 and an Order of Australia in 2001, this 88 year old elder statesman of Australian art has won the Wynne prize for landscape painting twice (1969, 1985), the Sulman Prize for genre painting (1989), and the Archibald Prize for portraiture (2007).

The artists Archibald winning painting, Self Portrait Janus Faced, makes reference to the Roman god of doorways, passageways and transitions, a deity said to look simultaneously into the past and the future. Given that Olsen was 77 when he won the much-coveted prize, it seemed an appropriate metaphor for him to employ, with the artist stating that Janus had the ability to look backwards and forwards and when you get to my age, you have a hell of a lot to think about.

Given the advent of the artists forthcoming retrospective, entitled John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, it is an analogy which is particularly resonant now. This high profile retrospective, which opens at the National Gallery of Victoria in September this year before travelling to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in early 2017, will cover a broad span of the artists career, ranging from paintings dating from the 1960s to more recently executed works.

Olsens recent commission by the Newcastle Art Gallery for a three metre long painting depicting that city saw him creating preparatory sketches from the cabin of a helicopter as it soared over the region of his birth. Im an explorer, I dont know where its going to lead me, Olsen said, a comment also indicative of his reputation for embracing life with gusto as a noted bon vivant and gourmand.

In Drawn from Life, a publication based on Olsens illustrated journals, food and wine feature prominently, whether he is lamenting the austere habits and the bread, and jam and tea mentality of fellow artists (Why eat jam? ponders Olsen in disbelief) or commenting on the early years of the Archibald when:

the portraits werent of pop stars and models: the subjects all had faces like sirloin steak and were dressed in so many medals their chests look like switchboards.

In Olsens writings, food and its liquid accompaniment take on the properties of art and vice versa, with one entry reading, A golden paella, cooked in an abandoned farmhouse by the beach. Later, we leap into the emerald sea. In another the artist likens the works of Pollock and de Kooning to popular beverages:

Abstract expressionism all looks like alcohol to mePollocks pictures reel like a drunken brawl. They remind me of a cheap, sparkling wine, whereas de Koonings marks are frothy beer.

The Chinese Restaurant 1999 might have sprung from the pages of the artists journals, which are dotted with recipes and anecdotes about shared meals, both good and bad. Here we are treated to a feast of the senses, in which the artist subtly indicates the process of a good meal through the detritus remaining on the table.

In this vibrant watercolour, Olsen employs his consummate skill in creating a fluid and expressive line to imbue this work with a sense of movement and atmosphere, with dashes of colour in blue and green pastel providing an added accent. Smokey golden and orange hues serve a dual purpose in suggesting the steam and bustle of a Chinese kitchen and evoking odours redolent of sizzling pans and the culinary delights which they produce.

In The Chinese Restaurant Olsen has created an ebullient and multifaceted scene which playfully conflates a tabletop and a landscape with elements of a harbour view. It is this ability to combine a number of different viewpoints and moments in order to represent the passage of time which imbues this watercolour with a sense of vibrancy and immediacy which characterises the best of this artists work.


1. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Winner: Archibald Prize 2005, accessed 21 May 2016,

2. Elizabeth Fortescue, Artist John Olsen takes a helicopter ride over Newcastle for a painting of the city of his birth, Daily Telegraph, 6 April 2016, accessed 21 May 2016,

3. John Olsen, Drawn from Life, Sydney, Duffy & Snellgrove, 1997, p.54

4. ibid, p.260

5. ibid, p.58

Anne Phillips BA (Hons), MA

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