National Gallery of Victoria holds retrospective on John Olsen, one of Australia’s greatest living artists.
Gathering works from 65 years of art making, “John Olsen: The You Beaut Country” at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is said to be the most comprehensive retrospective on the Australian master yet. Art Radar delves into the exhibition and relays curator David Hurlston’s thoughts on Olsen’s long and ongoing career.
“John Olsen: The You Beaut Country” is set to run until 12 February 2017 at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and will then travel to the Art Gallery of New South Wales opening on 10 March 2017. The exhibition has been leaving museum visitors in awe due to its extensive content and the immersive experience it offers since its opening on 16 September 2016. The show puts together artworks from the different periods in John Olsen’s life, ranging from his days as an art student in Australia, to his sojourn in Europe to further his studies, to the uninterrupted times of tackling his homeland’s terrain and identity.
Achieving this full survey of the Australian legend’s art career was not easy, as curator David Hurlston notes: NGV sought out almost 50 private and institutional collectors, whose artworks by Olsen were placed side by side to NGV’s own. Even the artist himself contributed to this retrospective. The curator shares that the most recent works in the retrospective were completed by Olsen just weeks before the opening.
No stranger to the Melbourne-based art institution (he had a retrospective at the NGV back in 1992), Olsen praised the turnout of the exhibition, as Hurlston reveals: “I know John is very pleased with the outcome. He has described it as ‘being invited to big party with old friends.’”
John Olsen: the beginnings
Born in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1928, John Olsen is a major figure in the history of Australian art. His unique pictorial language embraces figuration, landscape and abstraction. Olsen is best known for his landscapes, however his work reflects his various interests, from Spanish culture and cooking to portraiture. He works in a range of media and techniques, including painting, tapestry, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture.
Olsen left school when he was only 16 and before undertaking formal studies in art, he made drawings as an illustrator and cartoonist, selling them to newspapers and magazines to supplement his income as a clerk. In 1947, he began his studies at the Dattilo Rubbo Art School, Sydney, and in 1950, he went to the Julian Ashton School, where he was taught by artist John Passmore. In the early 1950s, Olsen also attended classes at East Sydney Technical College with Godfrey Miller.
The artist’s innate talent is also tackled in this retrospective. Gathered in one area are the works he had done as an art student and those that were included in his very first exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries in 1955. The work Dry Salvages (1956) was included in a group exhibition at the same gallery held in 1956, which featured three of Olsen’s works.
NGV also features another significant early work by Olsen, entitled The bicycle boys rejoice (1955) from “The Bicycle Boys” series. The exhibition labels at NGV (PDF download) quote the artist as saying about the work:
The Bicycle Boys series, which has been called my first significant work, was sparked
off by an exhibition of Italian painting that came to Sydney in 1954. It was so rare for anything like that to be shown in Australia in those days. The main influence on these pictures was Marini’s equestrian sculpture. I was also impressed by Sironi and Guttuso. Perhaps, in my sudden enthusiam for things Italian, I was also susceptible to the subject of De Sica’s film The Bicycle Thieves.
Olsen in Europe
In 1956 Olsen received a full private scholarship to travel and study abroad, thanks to the support of Sydney art critic Paul Haefliger and the generosity of businessman Robert Shaw. Olsen travelled to London, Paris and finally Spain. He stayed in Europe until 1960, and was there for another period between 1965 and 1967.
Spanish encounter (1960) marks a milestone in Olsen’s career. Painted in his Kings Cross studio, the work incorporated all of Olsen’s experiences of living and working in Spain. It was shown in October 1960 at the Terry Clune Galleries in Sydney, and helped to firmly establish Olsen’s career in Australia. The work was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales from the exhibition.
Painted in only five hours at his Kings Cross studio, Spanish encounter condensed Olsen’s experiences of living and working in Spain. The work’s boldness and the attention it received when shown at the Terry Clune Galleries, Sydney, in October 1960 helped to firmly establish Olsen’s career in Australia. The work was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales from the exhibition.
Olsen’s homecoming in the 1960s marked an important turn in his career, as did his time in Spain. As the NGV labels reveal, Olsen said of Spain:
One of the things that had a huge effect was when I went down to Spain. It was very cheap at the time, it was still recovering from the civil war and there was the Mediterranean and I came to understand the wonderful bath known as the Mediterranean Sea where Western art, Western philosophy, had its origins. It had a profound effect […].
Spain played such an inspiring part in his life that Olsen returned there again in 1985 to study Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) in the context of the Spanish environment as he had only ever seen it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a few years earlier, as he told NGV. This trip to Spain inspired a number of new works, such as Calle estrecha (The narrow street) (1986) and El Amoladar (The tinker) (1986), inspired by Goya’s black mural paintings.
Olsen’s unsung periods and practices
More than merely being a gathering of the artist’s works and collectors that have supported Olsen’s growth, this retrospective also reveals the other art forms and creative practices that the artist engaged in. On top of the list is his collaboration with craftsmen: unknown to many, Olsen worked with the Tapecarias Portalegre Workshops to come up with pieces made of wool, and with potters in the 1960s to produce decorated ceramics. These works of craftsmanship reiterate the artist’s restlessness in exploring how art could reflect the world around him.
Revealing yet another facet of the artist, “John Olsen: The You Beaut Country” includes his journals, in which he penned thoughts, views, working methods and influences, and give viewers an idea of the way the artist takes in landscapes and the life within these. As Hurlston puts it,
Olsen is an artist with a unique vision and sensual pictorial language, which embraces both figuration and abstraction, and who presents us with a very personal view of the world.
Found in his journals are his raw insights about his encounters, which perhaps could be considered the starting points of many of his artworks. These ‘insights’ take the form of sketches, writings, photographs and ephemera, ranging from tickets and postcards to actual bird feathers. Olsen is passionate about literature, and poetry in particular, which in part fuels his art practice. References to it can be seen in many of his works.
A notable example is his aforementioned early work Dry Salvages, whose title is inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages (1941), the third poem of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Olsen identified strongly with Eliot’s work, especially as related to his own childhood. Another work, Where the bee sucks, there I suck (1984-86), is titled after a line in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Originally, its title was The force that through the green fuse drives the flower after Dylan Thomas’s poem.
Thriving Australian Beauts
The highlight of this exhibition, however, is Olsen’s “You Beaut Country” series, which began in the 1960s, after his three-year stay in Europe. This series is said to be his most iconic one, as it launched the artist’s voice and marked the beginning of Olsen’s lifelong commitment to depicting the Australian landscape. Here, one would notice that Olsen’s approach to his home country has gone through many changes. As NGV writes on the exhibition labels,
In his You Beaut Country paintings Olsen distils what he sees as the contradictory beauty latent in Australia. In these works he captures the cultural vernacular and brusqueness of Australia, linking the land, light, people and attitudes together as a total visual experience.
In the NGV labels, Olsen is quoted as saying about the “You Beaut Country” series of work:
With the [You Beaut Country] series 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 […] which when you are just on the ground you don’t witness at all. Then you begin to somehow see the wholeness, the essential untidiness – the rivers that don’t go anywhere. It gives you more of a collective feeling of what is happening.
In conversation with Art Radar, Hurlston breaks down the development of the series:
In the exhibition we see his attention become more focused on the details in nature in the early 1970s; and by the mid-1970s, his interest in capturing the landscape from more of an eagle-eyed or aerial perspective. Now in his late eighties, Olsen is still inspired by the world around him. For the exhibition he has revisited the You Beaut Country and after almost 50 years painted a contemporary addition to the series. Titled ‘The you beaut country: landscape crawling,’ this new work is less frenetic than his works from the 1960s, but shows an artist who is still committed to representing the Australian landscape and who has lost none of the passion for what he does.
Now in his late eighties, the artist’s love for Australia and art-making has not wilted. Olsen always has a new idea for a painting and is not tired of pursuing what he envisions. Clearly, he has forged a deep relationship with his country’s landscape that there is no change or happening that is too small to fuel his creativity. Hurlston emphasises:
Through his evocative depictions of the landscape Olsen has, arguably more than any other non-Indigenous artist, captured the spirit and character of this country.
with C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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