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From Radical to Reactionary: The Achievements and Legacy of Influential Artist John Olsen – WhatsNew2Day


After the media breathlessly described the late John Olsen as agenius”, I found myself humming The Chasers’ Eulogy Song.

This may be a little unfair, but the exaggeration surrounding Olsen’s death seems to have supplanted any assessment of his true and lasting achievements as an artist. There is a danger here.

Hyperbole invites a reaction, which is not always friendly. It’s still hard to have a sober discussion about the merits (and otherwise) of Norman Lindsayan artist often referred to as a genius during his lifetime.

Portrait of John Olsen painting Love in the Kitchen (now in a private collection) in Dunmoochin, Victoria in 1969, by Robert Walker © Estate of Robert Walker.
Art Gallery of New South Wales Archives

John Olsen and Australian Art

To understand Olsen and his importance to Australian art it is important to provide some context. He came from that generation of Australians whose childhood was colored by the rigors of the Second World War, and whose adolescence saw an expanding and changing Australia.

War meant he finished school as a boarder at St. Joseph’s Hunters Hill, while his father fought in the Middle East and New Guinea and his mother and sister moved to Yass in rural New South Wales.

His ability to draw meant that he escaped the tedium of a clerical job by becoming a freelance cartoonist while moving between a number of different art schools, including Julian Ashtons, Dattilo Rubio, East Sydney Tech and Desiderius Orban‘s studio. As with other young artists of his generation, he was particularly influenced by his experimental approach and intellectual rigor John Passmore.

He found visual stimulation in it Charles Plate‘s Notanda Gallery in Rowe Street, a rare source of information on modern art at the time. Rowe Street was the creative hub for many artists, writers and serious drinkers who later became known as “The Push”. The informal exposure to new ideas about art, literature, food, wine and good conversation was more effective than a university. He learned about Kandinsky, Klee, the beauty of a stray line, the poetry of Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot.

Olsen’s first media exposure was as a spokesman for art students protesting the rigid conservatism of the curators who Archibald Prize. There were no complaints about the Wynne Prize, which had exhibited his work.

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John Olsen. A Road to Clarendon – Autumn. Winner of the 1985 Wynne Prize.
Art Gallery of NSW

The ‘first’ Australian exhibition of abstract expressionism

The friendship between Olsen and fellow artists William Rose, Robert Klippel, Eric Smith and their mentor John Passmore led to the exhibition Direction 1 December 1956.

An art critic’s over-enthusiasm led to it being proclaimed Australia’s first exhibition of abstract expressionism, and its artists as pioneers of modern art. As a result, Robert Shaw, a private collector, paid Olsen to travel and study in Europe. This was a transformational gift, coming in a time before the Australia Council Grants, when travel was expensive.

He traveled first to Paris and then to Spain, where he settled in Majorca and supported himself by working as an apprentice chef. The fluid approach to learning he acquired in Sydney was enhanced in Spain. He saw and appreciated the Tachiste artists, but went his own way and always remembered Paul Klee’s saying that a drawing is “taking a line for a walk”.

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John Olsen. Australia, England, Spain, Portugal. 1960.
Art Gallery of NSW

That Spanish experience was reflected in the exuberant works he painted after his return to Sydney in 1960. Spanish encounter paid tribute to the impact of this culture that continued to intrigue him, its energy and its apparent irrationality.

But he also found himself enjoying the “honest vulgarity” he found in the Australian ethos, leading to a series of paintings in which the words you beautiful countryin their title. Olsen’s confident paintings of the 1960s easily place him as the most influential Australian artist of that decade.

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John Olsen. Summer in the beautiful country. 1962.
National Gallery Victoris

Five bells and landscape

In 1972, Olsen was commissioned to paint a giant mural for the concert hall foyer of the Sydney Opera House. Salute to five bells takes its name from Kenneth Slessor’s death poem on the harbour, but deals more with elements of underground harbor life.

Due to the heroic scale of the work, he worked with a number of assistants to paint the dominant blue background. When the mural was unveiled in 1973, it received a mixed reaction. It was too muted in tone to handle the Opera House’s lighting, too parsimonious in content, too decorative.

In the following years, Olsen focused on painting the Australian landscape and the creatures that inhabited it. In 1974 he visited Lake Eyre when the once dry giant salt lake overflowed to fill with an abundance of life. He made paintings, drawings and prints of the abundance – both intimate views and overviews from flying over. Lake Eyre and its surroundings would become a recurring motif in the art of his later years.

While these works were commercially successful and many were acquired by public galleries, Olsen was no longer seen as an avant-garde. However, he was very much part of the art establishment and his art was widely collected.

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John Olsen. Five bells. 1963.
NSW art gallery

A man of his generation

The aerial perspective of many of his later decorative paintings could seem echoes of Aboriginal art. Indeed, when the young Abdul Abdullah Olsen’s paintings for the first time in 2009, he initially assumed that Olsen was an Aboriginal artist.

It was therefore a surprise to many when Olsen in 2017 sharp attack on the Wynne Prize after it was awarded to Betty Kunitiwa Pumani for Antara, a painting of her mother’s country.

Despite some visual similarities to his own approach to landscape, he claimed that her painting existed in “a cloud cuckoo land”. In the same interview, he attacked Mitch Cairns’ Archibald-winning portrayal of his wife, Agatha Gothe-Snape, as “just so bad”.

Read more: From gum trees to cities to vast deserts: how 125 years of the Wynne Prize traces Australia’s evolving relationship with our landscape

While it is not unusual for radical youth to become enthusiastic reactionaries in their old age, there was a particular lack of grace in Olsen’s response to artists who were not part of his social circle or cultural background. He was truly a man of his generation in this, with attitudes and prejudices that reflect the years of his youth.

Looking at Olsen’s paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, one is reminded that there was a time in Australia when brash young men could prove their intellectual credentials by quoting Dylan Thomas as they made a glorious multicolored paella in paint.

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