32. JOHN OLSEN
The early 1980s were a time of great change and upheaval for John Olsen on both a personal and professional level. In 1979, Olsen began a relationship with fellow artist, Noela Hjorth, a passionate ‘mid life collision’1 which saw the artist leave his wife and family in Dural and move to Wagga Wagga where Hjorth was artist-in-residence at a local art school. This major upheaval in Olsen’s life also offered opportunities to reconnect, he had returned to the landscape of his youth. The Riverina landscape presented the artist with an inspiring variation from the valleys around Dural - it was this new environment which became the backdrop for a small group of works including the present, Grevilleas and Tableland c1980-81.
The unique landscape and native flora of the Murrumbidgee plains saw Olsen adopt a new palette; an inspired transition after spending much of the previous decade painting the subdued tones of central Australia. Here, the artist shifted his colour focus to ochres mixed with bright punctuations of colour to represent the native flowers: bright yellow wattles and crimson grevilleas. Olsen must also have been reminded of the evocative poem by James McAuley, Terra Australis, which describes the identifiably Australian landscape:
Voyage within you, on the fabled ocean,
And you will find the Southern Continent,
Quiros’ vision – the hidalgo heart
And mythical Australia, where reside
All things in the imagined counterpart.
It is your land of similes: the wattle
Scatters the pollen on the doubting heart;
The flowers are wide-awake;
the air gives ease.
There you come home; the magpies call you Jack
And whistle like larrikins at you from the trees...
James McAuley, Terra Australis (1946)
The flat plains of the Riverina are portrayed in the current work by the large body of flat ochre colour; curving across the top of the plains are the Southern Tablelands which border Wagga Wagga to the west and continue down the Great Dividing Range to the Victorian border. In the background is one of the many mountain ranges visible beyond the plains; a curved, isolated form protruding from the horizon. Here, Olsen has captured a uniquely Australian aspect of the landscape, one which could not be mistaken for any other.
Olsen injects a joyful burst of colour and life into the composition with the bright crimson grevilleas which seem to dance and move across the composition. The colour and movement of the flowers creates an energy which is characteristic of Olsen’s oeuvre; his works are ‘teeming with life’2 The palpable liveliness which is present in Olsen’s work demonstrates the artist’s deep understanding and sensitivity for the Australian landscape. It is this colour and life which is present in Olsen’s depictions of the land and its inhabitants, which has placed him firmly in Australia’s history of art. Throughout his career, he has continued to capture the essence of all that is Australian; in a manner that no other artist has done.
At 88 years of age, John Olsen is one of Australia’s most consistently honoured living artists. His work is represented in most Australian public collections and he has been the subject of a number of monographs. He was awarded an O.B.E. for services to the Arts in 1977 and an Order of Australia (A.O.) in 2001. In 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle. His work is currently the subject of two major survey exhibitions: at the National Gallery of Victoria, John Olsen: The You Beaut Country and John Olsen: The City’s Son at Newcastle Art Gallery.
1. Bungey, D., John Olsen: an Artist’s Life, ABC Books, 2014, p.351
2. The title of the book published by Ken McGregor on John Olsen’s graphics: McGregor, K., Teeming with Life – John Olsen: His Complete Graphics 1957-2005, McMillan, Sydney, 2005
Caroline Jones BA MArtAdmin.