John Olsen: Views from on High - Art Collector

Issue 29, July - September 2004

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As Australian painter John Olsen prepares for another Paddington exhibition he talks to Ashley Crawford about his iconic aerial landscapes and the decline in ethics and morality, among other things.

With two new sets of etchings, a pile of paintings and drawings and a new book due out, John Olsen, at 76, is hardly sitting on his laurels.

Three years ago a hundred or so artists collected in Melbourne to see Prime Minister John Howard award Olsen the Painters and Sculptors Association Medal for recognition by his peers for lifetime achievement. In a lavish ballroom setting the Prime Minister ascended the podium to a vague smattering of applause – there were few liberal voters in the room and some of the artists went so far as to turn their backs on Howard. But then John Olsen took the microphone and the applause was deafening.

Olsen’s humble and humorous acceptance speech simply consolidated what everyone in the room already knew: here was a man who makes the most of life, a person who relishes intelligent company, good wine and fine food. A gentleman who, with one word, can quiet a heated discussion between the usually acerbic Tim Storrier and the unstoppable Robert Hughes over lunch at Lucio’s in Paddington.

But Olsen does not suffer fools gladly and while war rages in the Middle East he exhales a massive sigh. “Art should not become mired in politics,” he says. “One has to have a bigger stance.”

But Olsen’s irritation with the follies of mankind is obvious. “The Sermon on the Mount by Christ was one of the great moments of mankind,” he says. “But then subsequently you have the foolishness of the Church, the Calvinists and so on. The First World War was the cleavage, the mass murder of civilians, which had been virtually unknown before. The machines made it possible.”

But Olsen refuses to get bogged down in the horrors of politics and war. He has recently finished a major suite of etchings, The Seaport of Desire, with Port Jackson Press featuring that artists’ favourite, Sydney Harbour. He has also just finished working on a major book recording his works on paper, My Complete Graphics, which will be released by MacMillan this year. The book features 400 reproductions. “I think it will surprise people. There’s a lot more there than frogs!” he says with a chuckle, acknowledging the accusation by critics that he had, at one stage, become somewhat repetitious.

“The world would be that much more empty without critics,” he says. “Even though you may not enjoy it, sometimes they remind you that the sun doesn’t necessarily shine out of your arse.”

Olsen is refusing to take on commissions. “Things are much more personal now,” he says. The last commission was for a major body of works at Lake Eyre. “That is one of my soul places,” he says.

“I think if you are an artist you are involved in passion,” he said on the edge of Lake Eyre in 2001. “You are involved in something that you can’t really produce and you must give yourself to it. It’s the same thing with marriages.

Olsen is, of course, renowned for his landscapes and depictions of flora and fauna. He has spent considerable time at Lake Eyre over the years, where the apparently bleak and blasted landscape reveals an extraordinary array of life. “You gain more about it the more you know,” says Olsen. “It’s a kind of Salvador Dali bent watch – the illusional factor is very high. It is strange to see what is known as the Warburton Groove from the air and knowing that it has been formed by water over hundreds of thousands of years.”

Born in 1928 in Newcastle NSW, Olsen began his career as a freelance cartoonist for publications such as Man and Fashion Design. Despite the fact that his family provided little moral or financial support for his desire to become a painter, in 1950 he attended the Julian Ashton Art School and in 1955 held his first major exhibition at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney.

In 1957 Olsen travelled to Majorca and was transformed by the influences of European art and the Mediterranean. Back in Sydney in 1960 he began work on his first major work, Spanish Encounter. In the next two years he executed the You Beaut Country series. In 1985 Olsen won the Wynne Prize for A Road to Clarendon: Autumn and was the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1991. Throughout his later career Lake Eyre remained an ongoing passion. In 1974 Olsen had become intrigued by the changes occurring in the centre of Australia. Naturalist Vincent Serventy had witnessed Lake Eyre when the lake was in flood and, upon his return to Sydney, told Olsen of the dramatic transformation, making the artist impatient to witness the spectacle himself. Olsen made immediate arrangements to accompany Serventy on his return trip, inviting Tim Storrier and sculptor Joel Elenberg along for the journey.

In the day and age of abstraction and postmodernism Olsen has rigorously stuck to nature as a subject. “It has an amazing function and I perhaps have a predilection to see it. A Chinese Mandarin once said that the way to get nature in its proper detail is to see it from the air. Australia is so vast and big it’s the only way to see it, it’s like an enormous raft towed away from the rest of the world. Robert Hughes wanted it towed further away!” Olsen adds with a chuckle.

Olsen notes the similarities between seeing the land from the air and the imagery of the Aboriginal artists. “But it’s strange that there is the severe absence of the feeling of light in the landscape in those works. They’re graphically powerful, but there’s no sense of light. That is one of the wonderful things about the Heidelberg school and then Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale.”

Where many find the desert a threatening and challenging place, Olsen feels at home. “I’ve been in Africa as well and you’re always on the edge of violence,” he says. “Whereas you don’t have that sense in the Australian landscape, it’s fairly benign, there are no lions! The Australian continent is entirely different.

“There was no desert painting after Burke and Wills’s disastrous trip in 1865. People like [Arthur] Streeton took to the coastal fringe. It wasn’t until 1922 that Hans Heysen went there. The fringe has had a very determining factor in affecting the aesthetic of our art.

“We are a new people in an old continent and we still have a lot of looking to do.”

Olsen fears that there is a “decline of interest” in nature among the younger generation. “It has a lot to do with technology and the large way it takes over has taken away an interest in nature per se. The overrun of this has infiltrated to the young and there is a concurrent loss of interest in the depiction of the human body, there’s not the intensity there once was. It comes into things like the interest in abstraction, the decline of the observatory sensibility,” says Olsen. “Looking at the whole century, abstraction is a tiny part of art history, but I think it is symbolic of our decline in terms of human ethics, morality and even religion. To be declamatory about the notion of beauty is ridiculous.

“Our notion of what is beautiful has changed over the centuries. At one time it was the height of the Renaissance and then in no time it was Vincent van Gogh. Beauty is a transcendental quality that doesn’t live in the permanent. It changes according to our perceptions. To turn against it with the notion of grunge is ridiculous. I had a grandson who said that grunge was the thing today. I sent him to the academy in Florence and never heard anything about grunge from him again.”

While he has been described as a bon vivant with a healthy appetite for fine wines, John Olsen prefers the term epicurean. “It means making the best of one’s life,” he says. “To expect nothing after that life and to just enjoy the simple things.”

John Olsen’s etchings can still be acquired for around the $1,500 mark, but from there the prices begin to climb. There are small works available for $10,000 or so, but there can be little doubt that Olsen would be Australia’s most financially successful living artist. The highest price for an Olsen was $550,000 for Sydney Sun acquired by the National Gallery of Australia from the Rupert Murdoch Collection. Salute to Cerabis was bought for $386,000 by Marc Besen for the Besen Collection now hanging in the recently launched Tamawarra Museum outside of Melbourne. Autumn at Clarendon, which won the Wynne Prize in 1986, was sold by the Tim Olsen Gallery in Sydney not so long ago for $450,000, while a work from Olsen’s Dunmoochin period, called Love In The Kitchen depicting the somewhat turbulent relationship between Clifton Pugh and his wife was auctioned in Sotheby’s for $492,000 last year.

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