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Son of the Brush: A Memoir by Tim Olsen, behind-the-scenes of the art world

The Australian 5 December 2020

Ashleigh Wilson

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“Surveying the room, I see money, sex, ego, obscurity, fame, Botox, raw beauty and loneliness rubbing shoulders, and I am never sick of the spectacle. It is what I have been observing my entire life.” Our parents, deliberately or otherwise, cast long, complicated shadows over our lives. They’re there in that urge to seek approval, or the urge to strike away, seeking our own destinies. When careers align, further scrutiny follows. And when the family line contains royalty, riches or a famous name – Packer or Ablett, Picasso or Freud, Kennedy or Trump – this grand old narrative carries a charge that can be felt well beyond the walls of the family home.

John Olsen, the Australian painter, is a constant presence through the pages of this book, a memoir by his gallerist son Tim. And why not?

At 92, Olsen is a giant in the story of Australian art. He’s the nation’s greatest living artist, his son reminds us, a “prolific, creative force” who channels the “intangible forces of the universe” through art.

And while no one could doubt the extent of his knowledge about his father’s work, in Son of the Brush, Tim Olsen has written a book with a greater ambition, an extended meditation on identity, addiction and creativity in a world saturated in art.

As for legacy, he says this about himself and his sister, Louise: “One thing we both did inherit, with the mixed blessing of our background, is a complete faith in the nobility of a creative life. Money, power and politics do not mean much to either of us. To be an artist is to be more real.”

Olsen recounts a childhood latched to the elder Olsen’s career, moving from Watsons Bay, an eastern suburb of Sydney, to Europe and then back to Australia. When the family finds itself living an artist’s commune outside Melbourne, he encounters a bohemian existence that revolves around the home of artist Clifton Pugh: “Imagine a painting by Frederick McCubbin scripted by David Williamson, with a touch of Dante, all marinated in red wine.”

All of which sounds fun enough, but then he stumbles across his father having a threesome at Pugh’s home. He reports the incident to his mother. Olsen takes his son aside, insisting upon the need for secrets among men. Tim writes: “I was seven years old.”

Artists, actors and politicians move in and out of Tim’s vision.

He watches his father work and grows up eating his food, including that famous paella. He falls for Arkie Whiteley, Brett’s daughter.

There’s a formative period at The Kings School, where he excels in rugby and rowing alongside a “rough-necked bunch of country boys who couldn’t give a rat’s arse about art”.

He learns the ropes from Sydney’s top art dealers, then opens his own gallery. Every interaction involves a drink, and before long Tim has lost control. Margaret Olley takes him aside at an exhibition opening and delivers a difficult truth: “Now that this is over, this is now the time that you really stop drinking completely.”

Olsen, now sober, writes with insight when it comes to his own struggle. Perhaps it’s the clarity of mind that comes from treatment, but he is wonderfully candid when it comes to the lessons of sobriety and his long process of self-discovery. He says John never visited him in rehab and wonders whether it was because of his own alcoholic father: “I was obsessed with the myth of John Olsen, not the vulnerable, fallible man I now know simply to be my father.”

Tim’s memoir is also the story of the local art scene, especially in Sydney, a lively playground filled with characters such as Rudy Komon and Ray Hughes and long lunches at Lucio’s.

“Being sober in the art world is like being fully dressed at an orgy,” he writes.

He shares his thoughts on contemporary art fairs and the role of the gallery owner, having observed the interplay between dealer and artist from both sides. When he was a child, he saw his father, then in Spain, arguing for money with Frank McDonald, his dealer back home.“My policy on paying people properly and swiftly definitely stems from these memories,” he writes. “It is all too easy to forget how precarious the lives of artists and their families are, living not from pay cheque to pay cheque but from show to show.”

As a writer, Olsen falls back a little too often on earnest platitudes and the shorthand expressions of a salesman. I lost count of the number of times he described a particular experience as a “privilege”.

But when he describes his father’s work, he soars. Close proximity to the creative process has given him a nuanced knowledge that no critic could match: “He is not trying to paint an en plein air work that transports people into an impressionist or a surreal space; he is taking you into the sentiments of the bush, the vastness.”

The chapter on exhibition openings is most entertaining. They are a “necessary evil”.

Olsen has attended a thousand or so since he was a boy. Elsewhere, he details his attempts to crack New York, where he opened a gallery in 2017. There’s an aside about food – his two favourite restaurants are in Paris and London, in case you were wondering – and a gastronomic flourish that would make James Joyce blush: “To eat slowly, ingest and masticate is like a sexual process. To allow oil to dribble down your chin to suck an oyster out of its shell are provocative activities, like sharing a mango naked in the bath, or in bed.”

Olsen once considered writing a book called What They Don’t Teach You at Art School, drawing on informal interviews with the late Donald Friend. The older artist makes many fascinating observations about the art world, so it’s easy enough to see the outlines.

But Olsen is spooked by later revelations about Friend’s sexual offences with young boys in Bali and shelves the idea. Difficult in practice, but possible with the right framing. Maybe a brave publisher will be interested one day.

Olsen details his affection for his mother, Valerie, herself an artist, and sister Louise, the co-founder of Dinosaur Designs.

And he writes about his father’s fourth wife, Katharine, her chilly relationship with John’s children and the court case that followed her death. “The reflection, discussion and research that have gone into this book have been almost cathartic.’’

Now in his late 50s, Olsen has grown into a formidable player in the Australian art world. He has a son of his own, a philanthropic career and ambitions for international growth.

The elder artist still fills every scene with colour but the question of identity is no longer as difficult to resolve.

Tim has compared notes with some of Picasso’s descendants, all of whom have faced these questions too. The Olsens dine with Paloma Picasso, the artist’s daughter, at Lucio’s. Tim meets Claude, Paloma’s elder brother, at Art Basel in Miami Beach.

But it is Diana Widmaier Picasso, an art historian and curator, born 11 months after Pablo’s death, who adds the most notable perspective.

When Tim asks about the long shadow cast by her grandfather, Diana replies: “I only see the light.”

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