John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, a much loved artist, by Anita Traynor


 fond memories of John Olsen at a Metro opening, in my years as art consultant there, with gorgeous friend Rachel  a toe

It is not surprising that everyone is talking about John Olsen this week, with the anticipation of his new retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria which opened to a plethora of media, it was almost impossible not to hear about the “You beaut Country” exhibition.  Working in the industry it is easy to take for granted the job we do, meeting famous artists, attending art functions, openings etc, it’s all part of the territory really, but I can honestly say, that in nearly 30 years of being involved in the art industry, I have on no occasion taken the works of this man for granted, and whenever I find myself standing in front of a John Olsen painting, it reminds me, more importantly, of how I was drawn into this career in the first place, it evokes that old spark and ignites my passion. So I guess I felt it fitting to write my own personal little blog on a man that I have admired for many, many years.

John is a unique soul, and much has been written about him recently, you may already know that his career now spans over seven decades, in fact he informed us, (at a recent talk with Phillip Adams at the NGV) that he first picked up a pen (or pencil I imagine) at age 5.  He has always had a fascination with doodling, and still does!  Although early on in his career, he played around with comic characters.  Olsen didn’t really take art seriously until he attended the Julian Ashton School of Art in Sydney, for it was here that he got to hang out with some very talented artists,  which in turn inspired a life long career and friendships. This was an era that produced artistic greatness and Olsen forged great friendships with them all, Nolan, Williams, Whiteley, Rees, Passmore, and sadly most are now no longer with us.

We learn from his travels to Spain in the 1950’s, that he grew to love poetry, he is a voracious reader, but it is poetry that he feels a need to absorb on a near daily basis, inspired by his early encounters with Robert Graves in Majorca,  Olsen talks fondly in his (conversations with Phillip Adams) about that encounter and of the profound influence he had on his work.  He had also stated in an interview with Ashleigh Wilson, Weekend Australian, that he felt indebted in a way,  ……….“He was very good. He said that when you look at an object, always consider its metaphorical extension. Now that was very valuable.”   In fact, he returned home to Australia to paint one of my favourite works, ( Spanish Encounter, a stunning work that he painted in a creative frenzy, it is said that it took a mere 5 hours to complete ).



                                                                                                Spanish Encounter, 1960

Implicit in understanding the nature and inspiration behind an Olsen canvas, is his on going love affair with poetry, for as he postulates in his conversations, it’s not enough just to love painting, you have to have an injection of life and love to be able to draw your artistic energy from, and to this part, poetry, whether it be Yates, Auden, Dylan Thomas and so many more, plays an integral role. You will often find him quoting lines in a flurry of animated pride from numerous poets.  Spawn from this deep rooted love of verse, came one of his greatest achievements to date, ‘ Salute to Five Bells, mural’ Sydney Opera House, which was inspired by the poem of the same title, by Kenneth Slessor.  (originally wrote as a dedication by Slessor to a friend that had fallen overboard after a heavy drinking session on the Sydney Harbour).


                                 The enormous mural,  Salute to Five Bells, Sydney Opera House, inspired by the poem of the same title, Kenneth Slessor.

images                                                                                                          detail, Five Bells

For those of us who are familiar with the works of John Olsen, we know that there are definitely two very distinct periods in his paintings, The lake Eyre period, (1973) and the You Beaut Country (approx 1960 onwards), the latter, of course, being the subject of this most recent retrospective at the NGV. However, let us not dismiss the beautiful Sydney Harbour paintings, his love affair with Africa, which sees the beautiful languishing giraffe repeat itself in many a painting; I myself am completely enamoured with his frogs, and it is no secret that they play an integral role in his paintings. ” Frogs made me famous he jovially conveys to Adams in his conversations, and goes on to add,  that they are every bit as recognized as a Nolan ”Kelly”.  What draws you into these paintings initially is the intricacy of the detail, often finding those elements of surprise that don’t initially capture our intention.  Upon reflection though, I think they may just be the best metaphor there is in describing the artist himself. Frogs are full of life and leap out at you and jump erratically from place to place, their eyes are full to the brim with exhilaration, promise, like the artist, you never know what to expect next, there’s always that element of surprise when he is being interviewed, will he jump up and act out a recent scenario, will he recite a poem he recently read, or will he impress us with a recent tale which is often imbued with jovial gestures but at the same time, is always delivered with a human touch.


                                                                             Morning at the Frog Pond, 2013 Olsen Irwin gallery


For a very special birthday present, I was lucky enough to finally acquire an Olsen watercolour a few years back, and it has given me so much pleasure.  I only have to cast my eyes upon it, and I immediately feel a sense of calm and contentment,  it’s indeed a great gift an artist beholds to be able to inspire other people, to create joy through your work. Having worked at Metro Gallery for several years, where he is represented in Melbourne, I was also lucky enough to meet him several times and as those that know him will attest, he has the most incredible mind, is astonishingly lucid for his 88 years, and still as witty and animated as ever.  What also really strikes me the most, is that his art has in no way declined, it is as rich and beautiful today as it was in a more youthful stage of his career.  This is not something that all artists are capable of sustaining, for many, the later years make it impossible for them to keep up the momentum and integrity in their work.  Olsen, however, has given his oeuvre a tremendous love, spurred on by an insatiable appetite to reproduce the beauty of the landscape, it has not faded, and nor should it, for it is at the heart of the matter, the very beast that drives him.


                                                                                John Olsen, Frogs at Little River, (my little beauty)

Present day sees Olsen comfortably nestled in his new studio, it has become his sanctuary, his lifeline as he ponders the next brush stroke.   It is here, in the tranquillity of the NSW southern highlands where Olsen is able to experience the beauty of nature first hand, observations made from everyday life, for it offers a veritable feast of wildlife and natural fauna.  According to Ken McGregor, his long time friend and manager, ” Olsen’s studio like most creative spaces is warm and inviting and sometimes chaotic. ‘it is where the act of contemplation is incorporated into the process of painting.  The peaceful tranquillity of Hidden Lake attracts a variety of mammals and water birds. Black swans and pelicans glide across the surface of the water, cormorants dry their wings on the low branches of the willow trees, coots, spoonbills and egrets forage around the shoreline and amongst the bull rushes which provide excellent roosting. ” He goes on to state, and I love this comparison, that “The ever changing Hidden Lake is John Olsen’s Giverny”. For so many artists the relationship between nature and the artistic process is as essential as breathing, it is the essence from which life can be observed, envisaged and interpreted onto the faceless blank canvas laid out before them.

His love of food is captured in the ”paella” paintings, again conceived from his early life back in Majorca, one that holds such fond memories in his heart. Olsen loves to cook, and many of his paintings capture that passion, food, wine, sun, sometimes the simple things are the ones that resonate the most. However, It is sometimes a little too easy to dismiss these works as simply joyful and fun, as ostensibly, they emerged from a period where Olsen was very poor, living in Spain with little means to support himself, and with the implications of war, which would have a large impact on his later works,  after returning to live in Australia, it seemed  such a stark contrast. Here he was once again confronted by a landscape that was vast, urban life as he knew it here appeared to be on the periphery, distant and far removed from all that was happening in Europe, for in coming home,  he had left behind a land of immense poverty and political turmoil.


                                                                                           Paella by the Sea, (Metro Gallery)


                                                                                                       Seafood Paella



The Compelling images laid down by the exquisite planes of the Lake Eyre series, (which Olsen attributes to Nolan first painting, but which inspired his own work in the series),  often photographed from above, capture the landscape in such detail and complexity, quite unlike any other contemporary artist.  Nonchalantly it seems, he cast a mystical spell across the canvas; swirling, meandering, twisting, lyrical lines project the sometimes harsh landscape, yet what truly resonates with us, the viewer, is the beauty and richness that is etched into each canvas. For every brush stroke suggests the vastness and depths of this ‘great land’. Captured in a haze of muted blues, pinks and violets often juxtaposed with rich ochres, they ascribe to a terrain quintessentially Australian, there can be little doubt in the origins of these works, they are a celebration of the beauty and intensity of this place we call home and it is here where he pays particular homage to his own rich heritage.lake-eyre                                                                                                              lake Eyre, 1975

There can be no arguing that Olsen’s rise and success have afforded him many great pleasures, Olsen himself admits to having an almost perfect life, at times perhaps self-indulgent, as family and friends have had to take a back seat, but nonetheless, his lifetime achievements will not go unnoticed.  His commitment and ‘‘joie de vivre” speak louder than words through the intricately woven doodles that dance endlessly across the canvas, for it is here that his story is told, like the poetry he so avidly reads, an elaborate tale of life unfolds before our very eyes. As a recipient of many art prizes including the Archibald, 2005, with his self-portrait Janus Faced, a Wynne prize recipient twice, an ‘Order of Australia’, countless bragging rights, too many to mention, he is perched right at the top of the artistic tree, an honourable career that has afforded him wide spread admiration.

Olsen is flippant, when asked by (Phillip Adams) about his own mortality, he seems unperturbed and reflects that it’s the cycle of life, we are born and then we die, as simple as that really’. Yet we sense with so much recent attention, the ‘You Beaut exhibition’, which is being held in conjunction with the AGNSW,  a large commission for his beloved Newcastle to commence upon returning home, a further exhibition at Metro Gallery which also coincides with the above, that  there is no end to the journey, his creative energy has by no means dried up.

Without going into detail about the exhibition itself, I would prefer to leave that to the individual to discover for themselves, but I can tell you that it is very vast as you can imagine with over 180 works, some works on paper, oils, tapestries, prints, ceramics.   The retrospective is curated by David Hurlston and Deborah Edwards, senior curators at the NGV and AGNSW, and spans some six decades, the most comprehensive show staged so far.  It is absolutely wonderful, spell binding!!! That’s all I can say, for now, you can determine your own opinion.

So what is it that makes John Olsen the man, the artist,  revered by so many? Perhaps it is Olsen’s cheeky, enigmatic smile that wins our hearts, his passion, his infectious love of life, all of the above in fact, that has most of us awestruck, perhaps it’s just that the paintings speak for themselves, they belong to us, for, after all, they are about ‘our beaut country’, but perhaps it’s best summed up in a statement extrapolated by Ashleigh Wilson, when discussing content with John and asked if he might have done things differently:   “I don’t think of perfection, because that drives you nuts,” Olsen says. “When you’re thinking of perfection you might be thinking of somebody else’s idea of perfection. Leonardo da Vinci’s idea of perfection, that would have nothing to do with Rembrandt’s idea of perfection. Perfection looks after itself.”



(Featured Image), ‘The Guardian’

(Ashleigh Wilson, article for the REVIEW, THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN, SEPTEMBER 10-11, 2016)

John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, NGV, Sep 16-Feb 12th

Art Gallery of NSW, March 10-June 1 2

John Olsen: The City’s Son  Newcastle Art Gallery from November 5 – February 19.

Metro Gallery, Journey’s into You Beaut Country

John Olsen: The You Beaut Country is at the National Gallery of Victoria from September 16 to February 12; then at the Art Gallery of NSW from March 10 to June 12.

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