Voyage within you, on the fabled ocean,
And you will find that Southern Continent,
Quiros' vision—his hidalgo heart
And mythical Australia, where reside
All things in their imagined counterpart.
It is your land of similes: the wattle
Scatters its pollen on the doubting heart;
The flowers are wide-awake; the air gives ease.
There you come home; the magpies call you Jack
And whistle like larrikins at you from the trees.
Terra Australis c1942, by James McAuley
John Olsen’s Where Wattle Pollen Stains the Doubting Heart 2014 is a highly imaginative response to a favourite hunting ground, the Riverina country, just outside Canberra. The uncanny flatness of the land, the emphasis upon edges and void, sun-bleached pale blues, yellows and ochre, meandering lines, and richly evocative calligraphic scrawls, are elements that cry classic Olsen. The painting reveals Olsen’s love of poetry and his internal connection to the natural world. There is also a measure of introspection: Who am I and what is my place?
Where Wattle Pollen Stains the Doubting Heart draws on the well-known poem by James McAuley (1917–1976). McAuley was a friend of Olsen’s and a noted Australian poet who had also spent time in the Canberra region during the 1930s.1 McAuley’s poem lends itself to a range of interpretations, but commentary centres on its celebration of Australia as both a unique entity and as a mythical or imaginary construct. The idea of the wanderer, or explorer, is paramount to both viewpoints.2 The deliberate use of similes in the poem emphasise the ‘Australianness’ of the encounter with landscape through the juxtaposition of vivid literary, visual and aural features.
John Olsen strongly identifies with the artist as a modern-day explorer, often with no discernible fixed roots but floating from one place to another. Treading lightly wherever the artist goes provides nourishment and demands an equal measure of verve and dexterity to capture each experience. The cross-pollination between Olsen’s painting and literature also invokes an Australia that is real and imagined, enigmatic and lucid, contemplative and life-affirming.
Following his return to Australia in the early 1960s, Olsen set about recording the joyous qualities of Sydney and surrounds, including such wonderful paintings as the dramatic multi-panelled Sydney Sun 1965 (National Gallery of Australia collection, Canberra). The warmth provided by the central radiating orb and spindly tentacles that reach out like rhizomes seeking nutrients, triggered a multitude of bright and optimistic painterly equivalents over the following decade.
In the present painting, the central sun has been replaced by a dark-brown central heart, that is, in the artist’s words, ‘a symbolic large seed pod, [with] honey birds … hovering around it, feasting on wattle blossoms.’3 Olsen warmed to the contrast of the yellow wattle, ‘a magical, optimistic, sunny colour’, and the ‘lovely dry-biscuit ochre landscape’. At the same time, Olsen has drawn attention to the multiple meanings that are implicit in the ‘seedpod metaphor’, explaining, ‘It can be that in moments of intense self-doubt, seeing glorious wattle blossom can reaffirm our faith in ourselves; remind us of that eternal optimism, that nature rejuvenates itself and continues the cycle of life – and so can we.’4
To better understand Olsen’s thought-process one need only turn to an earlier iteration Nightfall, When Wattle Stains the Doubting Heart 1980. This is a major early Olsen painting, acquired for the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection in 1981. It was a highly publicised acquisition. Based on the environment around Wagga Wagga in the central Riverina, where Olsen lived at that time, it is quite different to the feel of the works from the previous decade produced in Sydney. It marks the trepidation felt by the artist as he moved through the landscape, reiterated by a sombre backdrop featuring cool and restrained black and blue hues.
The phrase ‘wattle stains the doubting heart’ is central to both paintings rather than a more affirmative description of wattle that ‘Scatters its pollen on the doubting heart’ in the McAuley poem. It is as if each place leaves an indelible imprint, one that sustains life but also calls into question the artist’s motivations and state of mind. This more introspective reading is consistent with the artist’s frequent ruminations on the need to better understand (and appreciate) oneself and our place.
In the same year, Olsen created works in response to the once in a lifetime flooding of Lake Eyre in Central Australia with similar colouration and painterly treatment. For Olsen, both places possessed spiritual connotations that drew him back repeatedly: ‘It’s so full of wondrous contradictions and enigmas,’ he wrote ‘which inspire more meditative contemplation.’5
Large, vibrant, and thoughtful, John Olsen’s Where Wattle Pollen Stains the Doubting Heart 2014 is a major painting by an Australian living legend. Its ochre base and thinly painted sweeping planes combine with pale blue sky and a river to suggest flux, fluidity, and enigma. From its epicentre to the radiating lines, it exudes a keen sense of resilience and artistic intent.
1. McAuley, J., Collected Poems: 1936-1970, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1971
2. Page, J., ‘Writing from the Periphery: The Haunted Landscapes of James McAuley’, Open Journals, Sydney, 2014, pp.7-8
3. Hawley, J., ‘Happy Birthday Australia: John Olsen,’ The Sydney Morning Herald: Store, 2016 [accessed online]: https://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2016/Olsen/
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.