(c) John Olsen. Licensed by VISCOPY Ltd, Australia
40. JOHN OLSEN
As time goes on, John Olsen’s unique artistic status grows. There’s no doubt that his exceptional talent was recognised early. Solo exhibitions at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries in 1955 and 1958 showed him to be in the creative grip of a new stream of pictorial techniques and thematic subjects that built on and finessed the linear freedoms seen in the paintings of John Passmore (1914-2004) and Godfrey Miller (1893-1964).
However, it was not until Olsen returned to Australia in 1960, after two years living on the Costa Brava in Spain, that his work turned heads and swivelled attention upon a new cultural ferment. He came back as charged up as tuning fork. His You Beaut Country series came on like a sudden storm – it was fresh and it was heady.
Olsen’s artistically dynamic thrust into Australia’s cultural landscape was certainly astonishing, but it was not until his his subsequent two solo exhibitions in 1963 at Sydney’s Clune Galleries (An Exhibition of Recent Paintings, Gouaches & Drawings by John Olsen) and Melbourne’s Australian Galleries (Olsen: Recent Paintings) that his uniqueness was fully applauded. The author, as a wide-eyed dorky art student, well remembers the first-rate excitement caused by that seemingly come from nowhere, breeze-in “larrikin” of an artist who lassoed the essence of the pulsing vivacity of a Poseidon boom/Post-Olympics Australia. It was astonishing!
Olsen was certainly in tune with the English/American poet T. S Eliot’s (1888-1965) idea that “genuine art can communicate before it is understood”. This warming and wonderfully subtle observation puts one in mind of something that is always said about the poetry of Maria Rainer Rilke (1875-1926): that it is easier to love than to understand.
So it is with the paintings of John Olsen. He did not simply depict a scene or tell a story in paint but tended to first immerse himself in an experience and then render the felt effects that the specific immersion had upon him. When we view his paintings we experience these effects vicariously – not in a “second-hand” way, but in our own way, of “entering” into the rhythms and artistic content of the work. A process that is akin to “entering” into a good piece of music, when one responds to the rhythms and musical content of the piece.
With this in mind, it is instructive to view the visual content of Olsen’s paintings as “seismographic” renderings that help viewers to “read” them as “mirrors” of his particular identification with an experience, and then to re-experience or experience them anew through the painterly echoes of his subjective response.
The present work, Olsen’s Jean de Florette of 1989, is a pertinent, highly impressive and typically sophisticated example of these attributes and observations.
One peers into this large painting as though it is a large field for the mind to wander through Olsen’s “seismographically” cultivated growths. The source of Olsen’s mature phase painting Jean de Florette lies in the very popular ($87 million box office result) French film of the same title that was released for screening in Australia in 1986 (directed by Claude Berri, starring Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteil and Yves Montand – it was France’s most expensive film at the time, $17 million). The internationally successful film, set in the Provence region which Olsen knew well, did much to promote tourism in the area from the late 1980s right through to the present day. The film, and its related sequel (Manon des Sources (Manon of the Spring), are sourced from two novels collectively titled L’eau des Collines (The Water of the Hills) of 1964 written by Marcel Pagnol. It is obvious from the painting that Olsen knew the story well, either from the film or the novel – or both.
The story is concerned with how a cruel landowner in a small village planned to ruin an outsider, a hunchback, who had recently moved into a bequeathed property by deceiving him about the availability of water, ridiculing him and attempting to drive him away from the area. The hunchback works to make a living for his family by breeding rabbits and hauls precious water from a very distant spring by hand – a gruelling drama that, turn by distressing turn, eventually results in his tragic death. The deeply moving film reveals itself as a reverse Oedipal tale, where the father unwittingly kills his son. In the telling it also places considerable emphasis upon the landscape, aridity, the colours of Provence, rural hardships, rabbits, carnation flowers (the landowner grows them) and the dismaying inhumanity of small minds in small communities.
It's not surprising that Olsen was impressed with the film (like millions of others) – what is surprising is how well he managed to transmit his response to it in his Jean de Florette of 1989. The painting, created when he was sixty-one years of age, is full of a mass of almost hieroglyphic marks and slashes done rapidly in a mental “download” fashion, probably very shortly after viewing the film. The painting is pictorially held together with a type of “visual slang” that tries to capture the “hot spots” of associations. As noted, Olsen knew the area well and viewing the film must have prompted flashes that recalled the characters, the landscape, the colours and the almost kinaesthetic buzz of village life in rural France.
Olsen’s Jean de Florette used the film of the same title as a pivot. Olsen tipped himself into its artistic potential. This allowed him to reconfigure its features in ways that gave pictorial shape to his recollections of the film and, from personal experience, renewed his sympathetic understanding of its ambience and its characters’ ethos. The painting, first of all, is flooded with the ochre colours of the region as is found in its earth, stone and rural tracks; there is not a straight line in the painting and its curvilinear shapes give the impression not only of seeming to map villagers’ movements, but also to provide a visual field in which to place selected items that feature in the film. This matrix of associations contain images of a watering can (centre right), a pail (lower left) and two large spilling water pipes (upper centre), which seem to hang in the picture plane like concreters’ pumping tubes. These four related images are greater in number and scale than any other item in the painting and obviously reflect the prominent importance that water, and its availability, plays in the film. Closer scrutiny of the painting reveals a number of red carnations, a rabbit, a rabbit burrow, an animal trap, a white painted church, a bed with two figures, various characters’ faces, a cart, a figure with what appears to be a dunce’s hat and a rectangular plot of land. Every item seems brought to the surface to “hang” in its own two-dimensional space as though to hint at its two-dimensional filmic source. There is no foreground or background; everything has a “democratic” right in the picture plane – consequently, the total effect is one of a hanging “tapestry” of associations.
Olsen put his credo poetically in a penetrating revelation: “The thing which I always endeavour to express is an animistic quality – a certain mystical throbbing throughout Nature”. 1 He also believes that “feeling” is more important than “explanation”; that artists must “feel” as well as “see”. 2
These attributes are found spliced together in the imagistic tracery and cumulative associations of his Jean de Florette of 1989 – a painting that sits in the upper register of the output of Australia’s most loved and respected living artist.
1. Art Series: Olsen interview – videotape 19 March 2013
Bungey, D. John Olsen: Drawn from Life, ABC Books, Sydney, 2014
Hart, D., John Olsen, Sydney, Craftsman House, 1991
Hughes, R., The Art of Australia, Melbourne, Pelican, 1970
McGrath, S.; Olsen, J., The Artist and the Desert, Sydney and London, Bay Books, 1981
Olsen, J., Salute to Five Bells: John Olsen's Opera House Journal, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1973
Olsen, J.: Introductory remarks at John Olsen: A Salute to Sydney 2007, 13 November - 8 December 2007
Olsen, J., My Complete Graphics, 1957-79, Melbourne, Gryphon Books, 1980
Olsen, J., Drawn from Life, Sydney, D&S, 1997
Spate, V., John Olsen, Melbourne, Georgian House, 1973
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne