(c) John Olsen/Copyright Agency, 2021
27. JOHN OLSEN
What I’m talking about is the artist as hunter gatherer. Being daring, and not frightened of the outcome. You’re a journeyman, in the real sense. It’s not the question of failure, it’s the question of understanding and feeling, where you’re able to inhabit your interior world.
John Olsen, 2021
In Deborah Hart’s widely read monograph, first published in 1991, she aptly characterised John Olsen’s art as one where the idea of a journey into the landscape is also a journey into the self.1 Although written thirty years ago, this analogous relationship between the artist and his subject continues to hold sway. Olsen’s current exhibition at the National Art School, Sydney, Goya’s Dog (29 October–27 November 2021), lays bare the artist’s soul-searching struggles with mortality and his holistic philosophy that nature and humanity are intertwined. Olsen’s landscape paintings pulse with life, energy and hope. But they also contain a more foreboding sense of the thought processes of this esteemed artist and his own topsy-turvy passage through life.
Self-Portrait in a Dog Landscape 1993 is a refined example of John Olsen’s unique approach to landscape painting and his mature, signature style. This large work belongs to a group of paintings that Olsen produced following his move to the small town of Rydal, near Bathurst, in New South Wales. Olsen warmed to the undulating topography, well-worn dirt tracks and interlinked waterways around the historic family house and property, Chapel House. He recalled; ‘the landscape rolls with rounded hills – the trees entwine and chatter with each other, pausing only to take a note of a large galah.’2 Katharine Howard-Olsen, the artist’s wife, commented on how she grew fond of the salmon pink colouring of the surrounding landscape,3 a feature found in many of John Olsen’s paintings during the couple’s 10-year custodianship of Chapel House.
In Self-Portrait in a Dog Landscape the viewer travels along deftly painted trails and snaking lines, past impasto scrubby knolls and coarse dabs of foliage, in a landscape that pays homage to activity, ritual and movement. It is an example of Olsen’s embrace of the ‘unruly beauty’ of the Australian bush. The key to the work is contained in the title. To the right we recognise the bust of Olsen, turned outwards to expose his ‘well-known Napoleonic dome,’4 and a large, Philip Guston-like pointed nose. Directly behind him is the figure of a dog, ears erect, legs in motion and paws outstretched as if bounding in from the side. Olsen’s head is inked in brown and a pinkish red, as if it is a receding crevice or dark void. The body is outlined and rendered transparent so that it takes on the look and feel of the surrounding plains. Most poignantly, Olsen’s form becomes a conduit from which the attenuated lines spread out and return, suggesting an organic connection to nature and the land.
Olsen’s use of the motif of a self-portrait and dog are centre point to a group of recent paintings including Goya’s Dog I-III, 2021.5 Olsen first visited Spain in the 1950s, returning again in 1967 and 1985. An admirer of Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Olsen’s short visit to Spain in 1985 was to see Picasso’s bleak anti-war painting Guernica 1937, a second time. He also immersed himself in Goya’s black mural paintings held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. This included one of Goya’s most enigmatic paintings entitled The Dog (El Perro) c1819-23. The picture was originally painted directly onto the walls of Goya’s house but was later transferred onto canvas. It depicts the upward-facing head of a dog, alone, in a dark void, sinking into an abyss of brown sand. It is interpreted as a metaphor for the artist’s loneliness in later life and the mental anguish he endured. But it can equally be viewed as a message of hope – the dog ‘probing the vast space of the sky like in Olsen’s words “a primitive radar asking for a sign.”’6
Facing one’s own mortality, searching for direction, and reflecting on the journey of life, lies at the core of Olsen’s engagement with Goya’s picture. Returning to Australia, Olsen painted Goya’s Dog, Life Escaping a Void 1985, followed by other paintings including the monumental and powerful Dónde Voy? Self-Portraits in Moments of Doubt 1989, both in distinguished private collections. These paintings are ruminations on the nature of life and on the interconnectedness of all things. In our picture, Olsen is thinking, feeling, and experiencing his way, in a self-induced reverie of understanding and discovery. As the artist recently stated: ‘I’m 93, and I’m more entranced with the dark side. Not in a mournful sense, but in a sense of enquiry.’7
1. Hart, D., John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p.151
2. Ibid., p.238
3. Ibid., p.210
4. Wolifson, C., ‘Where am I going? Moments of Illumination and Doubt in the Art of John Olsen, Art Monthly Australia, no. 328, Winter 2021, p.88
5. See John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, National Art School, Sydney, 29 October – 27 November 2021.
6. Olsen, J and Hart, D., in Hart, D., The Art of John Olsen, University of Wollongong Thesis, 1997, p.188
7. Olsen, cited in ‘Introduction’, John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, National Art School, Sydney, 2021, p.3
Rodney James is an independent art consultant who specialises in valuations, collection management, exhibitions, research and writing, and strategic planning for art galleries and museums.