John Olsen is one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, with a career spanning more than seven decades. Primarily a painter, he has also worked in ceramics, tapestry and printmaking. His energetic and distinctive style is defined by experimentation with line, colour and figuration. The landscape has been the overarching theme of his work, with forays into the urban environment, food and portraiture.
Born in Newcastle, New South Wales in 1928, Olsen studied art in Sydney at the Julian Ashton Art School, Datillo Rubbo Art School and East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School). In 1955 he took part in the important exhibition Contemporary Australian paintings: Pacific loan exhibition and in 1956 showed in the benchmark exhibition of abstract works Direction 1 with John Passmore, Robert Klippel and others.
Olsen lived in Europe from 1957 to 1960, settling in Spain. During this period he was influenced by the Tachist artists Antoni Tàpies and Jean Dubuffet and developed an interest in Eastern philosophy and poetry, which has continued to inspire his work.
Soon after his return to Australia, he painted the exuberant Spanish encounter 1960, which encapsulates a vitality stemming from his experience of Spain combined with the pulsating activity of Sydney’s inner-city life.
The series Journey into the you beaut country, created after his return in the early 1960s, is among his greatest poetical visions of place.
I wanted to really come to terms with the experience of a total landscape. Not like there is the foreground, there is the middle distance and there is the horizon. I wanted that overall feeling of travelling over the landscape. There you can see the dry creek beds, the nervous system… Then you begin to somehow see the wholeness, the essential untidiness.
The image of the sun – the energy at the core of all life – is a reoccurring motif in Olsen’s work, along with the egg and the seed. The water, and particularly Sydney Harbour, have provided lifelong inspiration and have inspired numerous paintings, the best known of which is Five bells 1963.
I brushed a line around the core theme, the seed-burst, the life-burst, the sea-harbour, the source of life I wanted to show the Harbour as a movement, a sea suck, and the sound of the water as though I am part of the sea.
Olsen returned to Europe in 1965 and spent almost two years in Portugal. Inspired by the colours and rhythms of Portuguese village life, he produced works such as The chapel 1966 and supervised the weaving of tapestry designs, including Joie de vivre 1964-65, at the Portalegre Tapestry Workshop.
Lake Eyre has been another recurring subject for Olsen. A vast space, the lake embodies the concepts of ‘the void’ and ‘the edge’ which have been seminal to his development.
Olsen won the Wynne Prize in 1969 and 1985, the Sulman Prize in 1989 and the Archibald Prize in 2005, among many other awards throughout his long career. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1977 and an Order of Australia in 2001. An Art Gallery of NSW and National Gallery of Victoria co-curated exhibition, John Olsen: the you beaut country, is on display in 2016-17.