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John Olsen Frog at Kakadu

John Olsen

Painter, Artist
John Olsen was one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. In a career spanning more than seven decades, he created a unique vision of the spirit and character of this country. He developed an exceptional and distinctive pictorial language defined by energised lines and bold colour in works that meld both representation and abstraction. Olsen painted a personal view of the world as experienced by the senses, often full of joie de vivre but also contemplative and deeply felt. Born in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1928, Olsen wanted to be an artist from an early age. He began his formal art studies at the Dattilo Rubbo Art School in Sydney in 1947, aged 19. From 1950 he studied full-time at the Julian Ashton School under the Cézannesque painter John Passmore, and at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) with Godfrey Miller. The work of French postwar abstract artists (seen in the 1953 exhibition French Painting Today at the Art Gallery of New South Wales) and of the Italian moderns had a significant impact on Olsen. He held his first exhibition in Sydney in 1955 and by the end of 1956, when he travelled to Europe on a private scholarship, he was recognised as an emerging force in the Australian art world. Between 1957 and 1960, Olsen visited London and Paris before settling in Spain, on the island of Majorca. Living outside the small village of Deià, he became alive to what he called ‘intensities of nature’ and was profoundly affected by the culture and culinary arts of the Mediterranean – a passion that continued throughout his life. On his return to Sydney in 1960, Olsen painted the exceptional ‘memory-journey’ landscape Spanish encounter 1960. The work condensed his experiences of the Spanish village – its sounds, shapes, smells, sights and dark tonalities – and Sydney’s energetic city life, into a raw vision. It was immediately seen as a turning point in Australian art and purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Olsen’s preoccupation with capturing his immediate responses to his environment brought him to great prominence in Australia in the 1960s. For much for the decade, his work focused on the Australian natural environment. The You beaut country paintings – completed after Olsen’s sojourn in the old NSW mining town of Hill End in 1960 – have become one of his best-known series. At Hill End, Olsen said, ‘I could feel Australia … I found myself saying how “beaut” everything was’. The You beaut country paintings incorporated geological, vegetative and anthropomorphic forms in a constant flux of birth, life and decay. With these radical new landscapes, Olsen expressed a sense of the irrationality of nature and the swarming, organic energies of the Australian environment. Olsen was equally adept at painting the vitality of his urban environments. In major cityscapes, such as Entrance to seaport of desire 1964, Olsen used strong colour and graffiti-like surfaces to create some of the most memorable, and perhaps anarchic, paintings of the era. He visualised Sydney as a dynamic and voluptuous ‘siren city’ of chaotic streets, light, water, colour and noise. Sydney Harbour inspired Olsen to create numerous paintings, the best known of which is Five bells 1963. Olsen used Kenneth Slessor’s great eponymous poem, written in 1939, as his starting point, to paint on large scale, and with calligraphic force, the sensations of the ebb and flows of the harbour. This work was a prelude to the monumental Salute to ‘Five bells’ 1972–73, commissioned for the northern foyer of the Sydney Opera House. Architect Jørn Utzon urged Olsen to create a work that would ‘become part of the harbour’. Olsen responded with a mural that extracts from the mysterious depths of the harbour that it faces.
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