(c) John Olsen. Licensed by VISCOPY Ltd, Australia
51. JOHN OLSEN
John Olsen painted Mallee Road to Nhill 1981, soon after he had left Wagga Wagga to live in Adelaide. Enlivened by the dry climate, sunny skies, fresh surroundings and the conviviality of making new friends, Olsen relived the joie de vivre of his Spanish period, in particular the time he had spent on the island of Majorca.
From his new base at Clarendon, an idyllic semi-rural hamlet, Olsen explored coastal regions in South Australia including the Coorong, the Fleurieu Peninsula and Lake Alexandrina.1 He also ventured further afield to inland locations and the Wimmera region in Victoria. Mallee Road to Nhill represents Olsen’s intuitive response to the landscape as a pulsating organism that is teeming with life. He embraces the new location and joyously conveys its élan vital.
The small Wimmera town of Nhill lays approximately half way between Melbourne and Adelaide. Punctuating the ‘centre’ of the town is a famous landmark – the Noske Flour Mill – reputedly the largest single bin silo in Australia, closed in 1958. Viewed from a distance the silo is a welcoming beacon in Olsen’s painting. It is pin-pointed by the small yellow moon placed directly above and the upward motion of the road.
Surrounded by wheat and sheep grazing pasture, the approaches to the township are straight and flat. Olsen deftly captures both aspects in Mallee Road to Nhill. Two thirds of the picture plane is painted in an apricot-coloured soil and the main road is placed on the left edge. These aspects compound the sense of a large expanse of ground and contrast with the polymerous mass of sinuous tendons and gyrating forms. Olsen thus creates a pictorial unity through the conjunction of broadly painted field and sky and the meandering, almost wilful, line.
Throughout his long career Olsen responded enthusiastically to the ancient and weather-beaten qualities of the Australian bush. As a student of Aboriginal art and culture, he also held a fervent ‘belief in country as a landscape inhabited by spirits of creation’.2 The witty inclusion of a kangaroo in the centre foreground of Mallee Road to Nhill playfully alludes to Aboriginal art and design. The painting could also represent songlines and imprints made over time.
The slightly earlier nocturnes Night Train and Owls, c.1980 (conceived in response to the Murrumbidgee region of New South Wales), and Mallee Road to Nhill 1981, all include recurrent references to native animals, birds and plants. There is a sense of the bush and the plain literally coming alive at night. Thick snaking lines track worn watercourses; scrubby knolls denote the trees and coarse foliage while deftly painted trails of transparent paint record movement and activity.
In Olsen’s paintings and drawings the idea of a journey into the landscape is also a journey into the self.3 Within this holistic philosophy, Olsen embraces the insights of other famous artists and writers who have left their indelible impressions of nature and place. Vincent Van Gogh is the most recognisable painter of the night sky. His cobalt and ultramarine heaven filled with twinkling white and bright orbs of yellow enliven the senses and widen our perceptions of Arles and the south of France. Olsen was also well aware of the Wimmera paintings of Australian Sidney Nolan who had been stationed in Nhill for six months during 1943. In Nolan’s paintings of the surrounding towns and countryside he introduced a new and radical simplification of pictorial space into Australian art.
The high horizons, tipping picture plane, long black lines and the unusual placement of key motifs, such as the wheat silos, are all evident in Mallee Road to Nhill. Olsen’s landscape is felt as much as seen. The combination of stillness and nocturnal meanderings encourages an inherently meditative response.
1. McGregor, K., Journeys into the ‘You Beaut Country’, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2007, p.89
2. McGregor, p.89
3. Hart, D., John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p.151. Hart cites the example of Terra Australis by James McCauley: ‘And mythical Australia, where reside/ All things in their imagine counterpart/ It is your land of similes: the wattle/ Scatters the pollen on the doubting heart’
Rodney James BA (Hons.) MA