John Olsen (1928-2023)

As a man known for his wit, unique vision, vitality and tremendous spirit, the Australian painter, John Olsen is highly regarded as a pioneer of contemporary Australian landscape painting. Using his art to express a strong emotional attachment to the Australian landscape, he famously combined the styles of various European and Far Eastern influences to produce individual child-like imagery with an implied aerial view. Reflective of Olsen’s exuberance, this served to highlight the diversity of the Australian culture and indigenous environment and offered viewers the chance to observe and appreciate art from a fresh angle.

John Olsen was born in Newcastle, New South Wales in 1928 and received his first formal art training at the Julian Ashton Art School and the Orban School in Sydney. Olsen’s independent outlook on Australian art first became evident to his contemporaries in 1953 when he partook in an Anti-Archibald Prize demonstration at the Gallery of NSW in which he was protesting against the Archibald Prize being awarded to William Dargie for the seventh time.

Gaining his first official success in Melbourne, when a small painting was bought for the National Gallery of Victoria from the Herald Outdoor Art Show, Olsen’s potential was soon recognised by Sydney critic and businessman, Paul Haelfliger. As result of Haelfliger’s acclamation private subscribers raised a fund to send the young Olsen abroad to Majorca in 1957, where he would develop his skills in painting and be inspired by various foreign influences for the next three years. During his time in Majorca, Olsen sent exhibitions of his work to Sydney and Melbourne where the artist’s developed and unique style of painting became obvious to viewers.

The true extent of Olsen’s talent was soon widely recognised when he returned to Sydney in 1960 to introduce an expressionistic style of painting which was reflective of the combined influences of Dutch painter, Corneille, and the Scots painter, Alan Davie. He had proven to have been transformed by the European and Mediterranean influences of artists, Hayter, Dubuffet, Lucebert and Alechinski and writers such as Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. After his arrival he was compelled to paint the surrounding landscapes of Sydney.

The European influences of his landscapes were united to create imagery that was characterised by a wandering child-like scrawl of quizzical lines, irregular squiggles and dots. The depicted environments were highlighted by loose brushwork and expanses of bright colour to further emphasise Olsen’s attachment to his territory and were created with an intended aerial perspective, a viewpoint that many Australian artists were inspired to adopt after taking their first aeroplane flights during the late 1940s and 1950s. Taking on a landscape from this angle, ultimately helped in the disruption of normally constructed landscapes.

As a true example of his sophisticated technique Olsen’s series, Journey into you Beaut Country (1961) is an abstract energetic blend of line, contour and colour. It serves to encapsulate the open perspective he adopted when creating his art and draws a viewer’s attention to his Irish-inspired wit and strong attachment to the general nature of Sydney and its surrounding areas. The series has also become well-known for capturing the notion of vulgarity and the ‘Aussie Larrikin’. This is represented in both the work’s title and playfully energetic, somewhat unfinished style.

The first impact of this work was felt in 1961 when Olsen took part in the inaugural ‘Sydney Nine’ exhibition. The series played a large role in having Olsen’s reputation firmly established in distinguished art circles.

In 1963 Olsen began creating designs for a series of tapestries made in Portugal and the following year he went to Europe to further his work in this field. After returning to Sydney in 1967, he set up and ran the Bakery Art School in 1968 and won the Wynne Prize for landscape painting in 1969 for his work, The Chasing Bird Landscape.

Continuing to create his distinctive landscapes, Olsen began to feature plants, birds and animals in his works after he travelled extensively across the Australia and was brought new insights into the native flora and fauna.

Commissioned by the Dobell Foundation to paint the Sydney Opera House in 1973, Olsen completed his mural, Salute to Five Bells, after being inspired by Kenneth Slessor’s poem. In 1977 he was awarded an Order of The British Empire for his services to Australian art.

Olsen was awarded the Wynne Prize a second time in 1985 for A Road to Clarendon, Autumn and won the Sulman Prize in 1989 with his work, Don Quixote Enters the Inn. Despite having protested against it some years beforehand, Olsen went on to win the Archibald Prize in 2004 for his self-portrait entitled, Janus. The title of this Archibald winning portrait was derived from the Roman God Janus who is represented in art with two heads facing in opposite directions. Olsen effectively related this character to himself by saying, “Janus had the ability to look backwards and forwards and when you get to my age you have a hell of a lot to think about.”

A man of success and significant accomplishments, Olsen was presented with the Painters and Sculptors Association Medal by John Howard in 2001 and served on the boards of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Art Gallery and the Art and Australia Advisory Board. Olsen’s innovative style of art is recognised both nationally and internationally as he has become known as the man responsible for generating a deep awareness for the diverse and ever changing Australian environment. Today his works are today represented in the National Gallery of Australia and most state and regional galleries.

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