John Olsen was born in Newcastle in 1928. He moved to Bondi Beach in 1935 with his family, attending school at Paddington Junior Technical High. At the outbreak of World War II, Olsen’s father enlisted in the Australian Army and his mother and sister went to stay with relatives in Yass, leaving Olsen to board at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill. After leaving school in 1943, he became a clerk and freelanced as a cartoonist. In 1946, he began evening classes at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. In 1947, he transferred to the Dattillo Rubbo Art School to learn more about life drawing, returning to the Julian Ashton Art School from 1950 to 1953, where he studied under John Passmore. He also took art classes at the Desiderius Orban Art School, the Auburn School and East Sydney Technical College, where he was taught by Godfrey Miller.
In 1957, the Sydney Morning Herald art critic, Paul Haefliger, impressed by Olsen’s artworks, persuaded Sydney businessman Robert Shaw to provide Olsen with a private scholarship to go to Europe and paint. Olsen travelled from the U.K. to Paris, where he learnt etching at S.W. Hayter’s Atelier 17 workshop, and then on to Portugal and Spain, finally settling at a house in Majorca, where he lived until 1960. 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.
Returning to Sydney in 1960, Olsen lived in Victoria Street, Woolloomooloo, in a loose-knit creative community with many of Sydney’s leading younger artists, including Clifton Pugh, Fred Williams and Albert Tucker. Later, he stayed for some months at Paul Haefliger’s former house in the old gold mining town of Hill End, before eventually settling at Watson’s Bay with his young family. 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. He also continued his lifelong fascination with Sydney Harbour, painting seascapes as well as his famous landscapes.
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.
Returning to Sydney in 1967, Olsen supplemented his income from art by teaching at East Sydney Technical College, Desiderius Orban’s school and the Mary White Art School as well as lecturing to Architecture students at the University of New South Wales. In 1968, he ran his own art school at the Bakery Art School, but this only lasted a year. In 1969, the Olsen family moved to Clifton Pugh’s collective of artists at Dunmoochin, in Victoria. On their return to Sydney in 1971, Olsen bought a large property at Dural, north-west of Sydney, and here built a large house and studio. This was the base from which he ventured on many painting and drawing expeditions, including one memorable visit to Lake Eyre in flood in 1974, which became the subject of a major series of paintings and prints. A vast space, the lake embodies the concepts of ‘the void’ and ‘the edge’ which have been seminal to his development. In 1980, Olsen moved to Wagga Wagga to join fellow artist Noela Hjorth and, later, they moved to Clarendon in the Adelaide Hills, where he lived and worked until the end of the relationship in 1987. He returned to Sydney’s artistic community in Paddington. Then, in 1989, he moved to Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains with his fourth wife, Katherine. In 1999, they moved to a large property, Owlswood, near Bowral, and, in 2011, to a seaside property at Avoca Beach on the Central Coast. Olsen calls himself a wandering minstrel, a fitting title considering his varied abodes.
Olsen’s first group exhibitions were in 1956. His work was selected for Contemporary Australian paintings: Pacific Loan Exhibition on board Orient Line S.S. Orcades, an exhibition that took what was seen as the best Australian art on an ocean cruise as a form of cultural exchange. Also, in 1956 he exhibited at Macquarie Galleries in Sydney with John Passmore, Ralph Balson, Robert Klippel, Eric Smith and William Rose. This exhibition, Direction 1, was later credited with bringing Abstract Expressionism to Australia. Olsen held his first solo exhibition, also at Macquarie Galleries, in 1958, for which he sent works to Australia from Spain. In 1960, he first exhibited overseas at Galerie Lambert in Paris. Since then, Olsen has held numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout Australia, including a retrospective of his work held at the National Gallery of Victoria & the Art Gallery of NSW in 1992.
In 1977, Olsen was awarded an O.B.E. for services to the Arts and, in 1993, he was awarded an Australian Creative Fellowship. Olsen received an Order of Australia in 2001. He has also received an honorary doctorate of letters from both the University of NSW (2003) and the University of Newcastle (2011). Among many awards throughout his career, Olsen was awarded the Wynne Prize in 1969 & 1985, the Sulman Prize in 1989 and the Archibald Prize in 2005. His winning 2005 Archibald Prize self-portrait depicts him as Janus the Roman god of doorways, passages and bridges, with two heads facing in opposite directions. Olsen commented: Janus had the ability to look backwards and forwards and when you get to my age you have a hell of a lot to think about.
Olsen is one of the most senior, respected Australian artists. He is greatly influenced and inspired by the Australian landscape. His work shows none of the European concern for scale. Rather, his loosely brushed canvases have no distinguishable fore, middle or background, and they are bought alive with light-filled, scrawly images that at the same time manage to give both a bird’s eye and snake’s eye view. The series Journey into the you beaut country, created after his return to Sydney in the early 1960s, is among his greatest poetical visions of place. Olsen said: 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 water, and particularly Sydney Harbour, have provided lifelong inspiration and have inspired numerous paintings, the best known of which is Five bells, 1963, of which he said: 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. Other reoccurring motifs in Olsen’s work include the image of the sun, the energy at the core of all life, along with the egg and the seed.
Olsen’s son, Tim has said: “Olsen is not an abstract artist; he is one of the great evocative painters. His link to poetry is his other great strength. … So often he has been known by his motto, ‘I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me’. That line, over time, became indivisible with his artistic identity and in the process, he changed the face of how we see this terrain. He changed the very essence of what modern landscape painting is by shrinking the sky, turning his back on conventional geometry, speaking his own language and always returning to the egg-yolk magnetic energy of the sun.”
Olsen’s works are widely held in Collections throughout Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia and in Asia, the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States of America.
Reference: Biography details thanks to Art Nomad