John Olsen dominated the Sydney art scene for several decades. He was a brilliant, virtuoso painter; a witty, articulate and omnipresent commentator on art and, for the general public, he was the archetypal image of what an artist should look like. Almost inseparable from his beret, a bon vivant who was well known for his cooking and knowledge of wines, and a slightly irreverent character ready to denounce hypocrisy and those who stood in the path of creativity.
In the Sydney art scene, Olsen was the leader of the pack. He was born in Newcastle in 1928, moved to Sydney with his family at the age of seven and settled in Bondi from where he developed his love of the sea. While in his teens he started to draw cartoons for a living and attended art classes at the Julian Ashton where John Passmore was to become Olsen's principal teacher and mentor. In the 1950s Olsen was also attending, on a part-time basis, classes at East Sydney Technical College, where Godfrey Miller was an influential teacher, and undertook a 10-week course with Desiderius Orban.
A defining event in Olsen's life was the exhibition Direction I, held in December 1956 at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, which brought together Passmore, Olsen and Robert Klippel as well as the religious artist, Eric Smith. It publicly signalled the emergence of a strong group of Sydney-based artists who had rejected mimetic forms of figurative art with Olsen at its helm.
Following this show, Olsen packed his bags and left for Europe for three years. After a short stay in London, he moved to Paris where he attended some printmaking classes at S.W Hayter's Atelier 17. In Paris, where he remained for about six months, he also encountered the work of Jean Dubuffet and met former members of the CoBrA group, but soon fell in love with Spain, where he was to largely remain for the rest of his stay in Europe until his return to Australia in February 1960.
Immediately on his return to Australia, Olsen embarked on a series of large, brilliant and vibrant paintings in which he married the sprawling narratives of the CoBrA painters and Zen philosophy with the newly rediscovered vitality and vulgarity of Sydney, which he observed from his flat in Victoria Street in Potts Point and that afforded him a glorious view of Sydney Harbour. In paintings at this time Olsen completely abandoned the single viewpoint perspective on the landscape and embraced the idea of the totality of the environment as the subject of the work and Paul Klee's idea of taking a line for a walk and conveying in the painting all of the different incidents and pockets of energy encountered on the line's journey.
In 1961 Olsen commenced his most memorable series of paintings, the You Beaut Country series, where there is a quiet celebration of the larrikinism of Australian vernacular culture, the untidy spread of the featureless Australian landscape and the sprawling streets of Sydney, around its glowing harbour. Olsen already from the mid 1950s developed an admiration for Dylan Thomas's play Under Milk Wood and to some extent in these paintings he achieved that overall holistic approach that was a feature of the play, where the artist as narrator invites us to observe the seen and unseen realities of a small intimate environment. In contrast with the angst-ridden world of the Antipodeans in Melbourne, there is a general hedonism that prevails in these paintings, something that should not be confused with a superficial frivolity.
A generosity of spirit that characterised the artist also characterised his art where humour is often combined with a very positive and joyful outlook on life. At times Olsen took refuge from the Sydney art world at Hill End and in 1963 he settled into an old fisherman's cottage at Watsons Bay, near the entrance to Sydney Harbour, where he painted a number of splendid harbour paintings.
After a period of almost two years in Europe in the mid-1960s, Olsen returned with his family to Sydney to find it a much-transformed city whose art was in the grips of American-inspired hard-edge formalism. In 1969 Olsen fled to the rural safety of Clifton Pugh's Dunmoochin in Victoria, where he was to remain for the next two years painting and making collaborative ceramics with the potter Robert Mair. It was following his return to Sydney in 1971, that Olsen was commissioned to execute a huge mural, more than 20 metres in length, for the Sydney Opera House. He had long been attracted to Kenneth Slessor's poem Five Bells, written in 1939, and titled his mural Salute to Five Bells, 1972. It is a sprawling fabric of vision, more like an exploration of marine encounters in the blue of Sydney Harbour, rather than any sort of illustration of Slessor's tragic verse.
John Olsen has been an artist who has constantly reinvented himself, from expressions of joie de vivre on encounters with new environments, to a profound contemplation in a Zen manner of the small miracles of nature, to a fundamental reinvention of self associated with changes in circumstances in his private life when he changed studios as he moved from Wagga Wagga to Clarendon in South Australia, to Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains to Rydal and most recently to Bowral in rural NSW.
About 20 years ago, Olsen published a selection of his diaries in a book titled Drawn from life. He invited me to launch it in Canberra at a function at the National Gallery of Australia. At the end of the function he asked his publisher how much money he had made at the launch. He was told that it was several hundred dollars and he immediately instructed an assistant to go out and buy the most expensive bottle of champagne that he could find. Then Olsen and I sat in the members' lounge celebrating the event with the bottle between us. Better than anything, this illustrates Olsen's generosity of spirit and living life to the full. Australian art mourns his passing as I mourn the passing of a friend.
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