With a career spanning over seven decades, John Olsen is one of Australia’s most celebrated artists whose works continue to surprise and delight audiences. Olsen’s work presents the viewer with a new way to imagine and experience the land and animals. Nature, poetry, the Australian landscape and travel stand as key influences in his art.1
Giraffes at Mt. Kenya 1980 belongs to an important part of Olsen’s career, when he temporarily ventured beyond Australian subjects and influences. Travelling to Kenya in 1978, the subject of Olsen’s work shifted from ‘beaut’ emus and frogs to giraffes and monkeys, their African counterparts.2 Whilst the subjects of his work are ultimately African, Olsen does not stray from his style informed by his Australian identity. As Olsen observed, when looking at ‘an aboriginal painting of a kangaroo, you get the feeling the artist is inside and outside the animal – total.’3 Olsen emulates this sense of wholeness in his representation of the giraffes. The fluid brushstrokes are a testament to Olsen’s fascination with Chinese calligraphy.4 The giraffes and landscape are energetically conveyed by Olsen’s versatile use of line - thick, thin, smudgy, sharp, rapid, and soft - while being simultaneously balanced by the perfect amount of negative space, heightening the lightness and enjoyment of the work.
Olsen’s depiction of the giraffes demonstrates a harmonious relationship between the animals and their native habitat. The giraffes almost blend into one, captured in motion. Olsen’s awkward and authentic representation of the giraffes, shown carrying on with their everyday activities, echoes the style of his frog series. The river is simply implied by blue lines that curl their way across the bare Kenyan landscape. Olsen’s childlike, playful finish can be drawn to the almost careless, but perfectly executed yellow spots and the ‘Olsenised’ giraffe tongues.
When viewing Giraffes at Mt. Kenya it is important to consider the way Olsen has produced it. As he often worked on several paintings simultaneously, this work can be considered part of a greater web that makes up the world through his eyes.5
1. John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, Education Resource, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2016, pp. 1-5, 37
2. Hart, D. John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, pp.146-149
3. Olsen, J., Salute to Five Bells, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973, n.p.
4. Hart, D., John Olsen, Encounters with Drawing, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 1988, pp.11-19
5. Hart, D., John Olsen, pp.146-149
Martha Millett, BA