Past Catalogue | Werribee 70 Melbourne 2015 | Date: 24 September, 2015

Lot 22
Chasing the Rhino 1993
mixed media on Torinoko paper
120.0 x 100.0 cm

signed, dated and inscribed lower right: Chasing the Rhino John Olsen/ 92


Artist’s studio, 1993 Private collection, Melbourne


John Olsen is most well-known to collectors and admirers of his work as a landscape painter, depicting distinctive landforms in various stages of flux. Inherent in these depictions of the natural world is the artist’s affinity with the life forms which inhabit the landscape, bringing an energy and élan vital to the compositions. Animals too play a significant part in the artist’s work, ‘perhaps more than any Australian artists, John Olsen has invested in the animal world…with a zestful energy and sometimes tender, often humorous insights.’1

John Olsen’s first experience of Africa and its native wildlife was in 1978, when he travelled to Kenya and South Africa. He had a special fascination with giraffes and monkeys and was able to observe these unique creatures in their natural habitat. He drew vigorously, capturing the movement of these animals in sketchbooks that he would later turn into more detailed gouaches and oils. The ambidextrous ability of the monkey and its kinetic energy captivated Olsen. Many of the artist’s studies, gouaches and oils capture the wry wit and strange human qualities of these creatures. Deborah Hart describes the giraffes and monkeys as ‘the African equivalents of the emus and frogs’2 which the artist had spent much time sketching, drawing and painting in Australia.

The elephant and rhino were two species which Olsen also studied in great detail whilst in Africa. Their enormous, hulking, forms were a source of fascination and curiosity to the artist and he has revisited both of these forms numerous times throughout his career. The present work, Chasing the Rhino 1993 captures the energy and presence of this unique animal in the artist’s characteristic fluid style. Olsen paints the beast head-on and almost fills the Torinoko sheet with the animal’s form, depicting the sheer size and presence of the animal. The frontal view of the rhino creates an almost menacing energy, as though at any moment it will burst through the page and charge at the viewer. ’Occasionally the images were quite charming and elegant, while in other instances they were as daring and erratic as the creatures themselves. The aim was not perfection but discovery’.3

John Olsen returned to Africa in the 1980s, spending time studying and drawing the intriguing native wildlife which had captivated him years earlier. The animals provided ways of charting new territories of creative exploration where close observation became a springboard for ideas. Whilst working on his animal subjects, Olsen would often be simultaneously working on other subjects and large oils. The artist frequently returned to his animal paintings and they can be considered ‘part of the whole web of life that makes up Olsen’s world, and as vital links to his ongoing exploration in the process of creativity.’4

John Olsen, at the age of eighty-seven, is recognised nationally and internationally as one of Australia’s most accomplished artists. Few artists paint with the characteristic vitality and fluency which Olsen possesses or have the versatility to work across such varied media. His affection for the Australian landscape and the microcosms which exist within it is deeply felt in his art and it is this vitality in his art, and within his person, which contribute significantly to Australian art.


1. Hart, D. John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, p.146

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

Caroline Jones MA (Art Admin.)

John Olsen is widely thought of as Australia’s greatest living artist. His earliest recorded paintings date back to the 1940’s, and by 1960 he was an important member of the Sydney art scene and taking part in major exhibitions. Olsen still makes headlines for his art, it seems like only a few years ago (2005) that he was winner of the Archibald Prize at the age of 78.  He continues today to be an active painter, printmaker, sculptor and watercolour painter.

Chasing the Rhino, (lot 2) is a large watercolour, painted in 1992 showing a charging rhinoceros  with a figure and a pelican ducking away behind it, and with an African landscape and blazing sun in the  background. It’s a classic image with all the signature Olsen observation, wit and technical skill which we value so highly. What is exceptional about the painting, and what makes it an historically important piece as well is the collection of 71 snapshot photographs documenting the artist’s every step in producing the work. It’s a fascinating insight into the way Olsen works and the image is built up over a period of several days. The photos are a unique and important record of a major painter at the height of his creativity in the act of making his art.