John Olsen 1928 –
John Olsen’s artworks are often described as exuberant and vibrant. They show an explosion of colour and movement, full of detail and passionate expression.
After leaving school in Sydney, John studied at several art schools until the late 1950s when he received a sponsorship to travel to Europe to paint. He studied in Paris and then spent two years in Spain, falling in love with the Mediterranean region. He still wears a beret regularly, one sign among many of the strong influence of his experiences at that time.
Early in his life and career, John was captivated by Sydney Harbour, firstly growing up near Bondi Beach after his family moved there from Newcastle, and later living with his young family at Watson’s Bay.
Many of his works are very large landscapes, particularly his more famous ones. Perhaps his most famous work that became a career turning point, was ‘Salute to Five Bells’. He was commissioned to paint a mural in the Sydney Opera House, choosing a wall overlooking the harbour that is 21 metres long and 3 metres high. It was completed in 1973 in time for the opening of the building and was duly inspected by the Queen accompanied by the artist. His fame and success grew from that time on.
His landscapes often reflect his view that the land is best seen from the air because this gives the perspective of the entirety of the landscape and horizon, its disorder and rambling nature. Good examples of this are his Lake Eyre series. He is sometimes characterized as an abstract artist, but he has responded to that branding saying, ‘I have never painted and abstract painting in my life.’, instead he views his work as ‘an exploration of the totality of landscape.’1
The passion that John brought to his art was reflected in other aspects of his life, often controversially and painfully for his family. He was married four times and had turbulent relationships with his children, often due to those marriages.
Despite all that the family endured over the years, John’s children eventually reunited with their father and are now as close as the early years enjoyed at their home in Watsons Bay in 1960s and 70s. In those years ‘our house was full of music and full of books and full of art. I felt incredibly enriched by it,’ Louise says.2
And yet, although he was a caring father, the love and pursuit of artistic expression was always the priority. ‘His children, Tim and Louise, grew up watching him paint, knowing that the art came first, that it was an absolute compulsion for their father.’2
John’s children have lived in the shadow of their famous father, but despite their difficulties, eventually found their own success and contentment. Jane, John’s daughter from his first marriage and her children became close again, years before Jane’s death from cancer in 2009. Tim has become an experienced and successful art dealer and runs Olsen Gallery in the Sydney suburb of Woolahra, also curating his father’s works. This achievement is particularly special for him since he has struggled with his father’s fame and has overcome alcohol addiction which almost killed him. Louise, together with her partner Stephen Ormandy and another student she met at art school, founded Dinosaur Designs. This is now a global business that makes jewellery and homewares from resin. Stores have been established in London and New York and their creations are sold all over the world.
John Olsen still paints in his home studio in the Southern Highlands of NSW.