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The Sun King

The Weekend Australian 10 - 11 September 2016

Ashleigh Wilson

John Olsen leans over his desk, charcoal in hand. Shadow falls over the paper as he presses down, drawing a line from top to bottom and then sending it curling in different directions. His hand moves with a slow, deliberate rhythm, and he adjusts the angle of the charcoal to vary what he calls the pace of the line. It’s a picture of a pelican, but it’s also a demonstration of positive and negative space, male and female, the perfect balance between the yin and the yang. “It’s the idea of the emptiness being as full as the fullness,” he says.

Behind him stands a large unfinished painting of Lake Eyre. It’s a work unlike anything he has done before. This picture won’t be included in his upcoming retrospective in Melbourne and Sydney, but he seems deeply satisfied with its progress. With this painting, Olsen says, he is edging closer than he ever has to Lake Eyre after wrestling with the subject for many years. “I just had this notion of extending my experience with it.”

At 88, Olsen has a secure hold on the crown as Australia’s greatest living painter. His work commands great respect, and he’s as close to a household name as an artist could be. In recent years he has enjoyed a flurry of honours, from a belated Archibald Prize in 2005 and his elevation as life governor at the Art Gallery of NSW to two honorary university degrees. He also added an Order of Australia to his title of OBE.

This weekend he will travel from his home in NSW’s southern highlands to Melbourne for the opening of a career retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria. The show has been put together in tandem with the AGNSW, where it will open next year. The two galleries hosted a retrospective of his work 25 years ago, so this exhibition is a story of longevity, if nothing else. Certainly it’s hard to think of another living Australian artist bestowed with two major retrospectives a generation apart.

John Olsen's Dry Salvages (1956), named after a TS Eliot poem.

Earlier this week Olsen invited Review to his property just outside Bowral, a 90-minute drive from Sydney and home for the past five years. Its energy centre is his studio, a vast, light-filled space just a few steps from his bedroom and overlooking a lake where ducks make circles on the water. Here he sat, surrounded by paints, canvases, brushes and books, and discussed his creative practice, his world, his high-profile children (Tim is a prominent Sydney gallerist; Louise co-founded Dinosaur Designs) and the passing of time.

Invited to consider the artists no longer with him, he sighs: “Drysdale was a good friend of mine. Nolan gone, Whiteley gone, Lloyd Rees gone. They’re nearly all gone.”

A retrospective is an opportunity for reflection, and Olsen is happy to oblige. There’s much to cover: the time he protested a conservative Archibald Prize; his affection for Spain; the heady atmosphere on his return to Australia; his Opera House mural; his exploration of the Australian landscape; his relationship with younger artists. He’s great company, too, charming and erudite and witty, qualities that shine through whether he’s enjoying a long lunch at Lucio’s restaurant in Sydney or talking about art in his studio.

But Olsen is busy with new ideas, so there’s only so much time he can spend looking backwards. Apart from the Lake Eyre picture, which is still taking shape, another commission awaits his attention, a picture that will take him back to the beginning of his own story. It’s a meditation on Newcastle, the city of his birth.

'Where is humanity without poetry? In a terrible heap'Naturally enough, for Olsen, that picture has its foundations in poetry. Its title is The River is a strong brown god, a line from TS Eliot’s Dry Salvages. As it happens, he used the title of the same poem in 1956 for a painting in Direction 1, a show at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries and a breakthrough moment for the young artist. So perhaps this is a time for both reflection and renewal, a time when the recurring patterns of the past come into view.
“I’m finding I’m working slower at the moment. Maybe I’m getting old.” Olsen looks up from his TS Eliot and continues in a whisper. “I don’t feel it.”

Of all the many loves in Olsen’s life, one constant companion is poetry. Eliot is a favourite, of course; he’s currently enjoying Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the artist. He also loves WB Yeats, WH Auden, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender and Gerard Manley Hopkins — from whom the line “nature is never spent” seems especially apt, considering Olsen’s tenderness towards the natural world. During our conversation, Olsen jumps up several times to retrieve a book of ­poetry from the shelf to illustrate a point. He’s also fond of quoting lines committed to memory. One passage he has been quoting to others for some time comes from the opening of Pied Beauty, by Hopkins:

Glory be to God for dappled things —

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow …

“Where is humanity without poetry?” Olsen says. “In a terrible heap. That’s one of the problems we have in Australia, and I guess this could be extended to anywhere in the Western world, where poetry is very badly taught in schools. If I was teaching poetry I could tell you that the kids there would really, really be moved by it. But it’s passed off as something that no one understands.”

Olsen painted Spanish Encounter (1960) in a five-hour burst on his return to Australia .

 It wasn’t until Olsen travelled to Europe in the late 1950s that he felt he really learned to harness the power of poetry. He ended up in Majorca and fell in with the poet Robert Graves, who helped him find focus.

“He was very good. He said that when you look at an object, always consider its metaphorical extension. Now that was very valuable.”

Olsen turned to poetry for one of his best-known commissions, a work that continues to look over Sydney Harbour to the north. It was late in 1971, two years before the opening of the Sydney Opera House, when James Gleeson invited him to create a mural inside the new building. Gleeson, a critic, artist and chairman of the Dobell foundation, had been impressed by Olsen’s Spanish Encounter, a vigorous three-panel epic that Olsen had painted in a five-hour burst on his return to Australia a decade earlier.

Olsen decided to base the mural on Five Bells, an elegy by Kenneth Slessor for a friend who had gone overboard in Sydney Harbour with beer bottles in his pocket. The artist sought out Slessor, who told him the story behind his poem, and then set to work.

“As a young man,” Olsen says, “I was very excitable and very haptic and all over the place. Talented, but all over the place. I just don’t feel that anymore. I think I came close to that feeling with the Opera House.”

While the mural will not be included in the retrospective, an earlier work, Five Bells, will be put on display when the show travels to Sydney. Olsen remembers the mural’s creation as a difficult period, how some of the workers heckled him as it was coming together. But four decades on, he thinks the picture, initially conceived as a ceramic, has aged well — even if he’s no fan of the purple carpet in front.

Did he ever doubt himself? “Never for a moment. Never. And we spent a lot of time getting that purply moonlight colour, because it was important to the theme.”

The new retrospective, jointly curated by David Hurlston and Deborah Edwards, senior curators at the NGV and AGNSW respectively, will present a spread of Olsen’s career, from paintings to ceramics, tapestry, prints and drawings. Compared to the earlier retrospective, in 1991 and 1992, Olsen describes this show as a “proper summary” of his career. There will be 108 works in total, covering six decades of work.

It must be tempting to look back over it all and wonder what could have been done differently. “I don’t think of perfection, because that drives you nuts,” Olsen says. “When you’re thinking of perfection you might be thinking of somebody else’s idea of perfection. Leonardo da Vinci’s idea of perfection, that would have nothing to do with Rembrandt’s idea of perfection. Perfection looks after itself.”

The title of the show is The You Beaut Country, a reference to the series created following his return to Australia. Olsen says the phrase draws on his experience in Spain in the 50s — “completely isolated and very, very poor” — and the contrast with Australia, where everything felt so “magically alive”. It also relates to the “commitment of innocence” that Australia had taken to Gallipoli.

“So I think that the ‘you beaut country’ has that kind of innocence about it,” he says. “That first reaction was a reaction against Spain’s civil war, and the contrast between coming back to Australia. It was an extraordinary thing: it was a Saturday night. The ship came in, there was the showboat, and there was raucous saxophone music and the whole harbour was dancing. I didn’t have any notion of doing the ‘you beaut country’ then, but it seemed to me to be an idea of a contrast. A parallel to Australia’s ­enthusiasm.”

From this point, Olsen travelled widely across Australia. He took in the likes of Lake Eyre, Lake Hindmarsh, Arnhem Land and Bass Strait, and he speaks with enthusiasm about a country that he insists is best viewed from the air, and the great empty spaces that are anything but empty. Most Australians, he says, cling to the edges of their country. He calls it a “saucer-like existence”.

John Olsen at work earlier in his career.

“It’s so big and so chaotic, unlike the European landscape, which is ordered, and honed and manicured by great poets,” he says. “The Australian landscape is like a dog’s hind leg — and that’s the value of Sidney Nolan. His landscapes revealed for the first time the essential untidiness of the Australian landscape.

“But the investigation goes further. When you begin to travel over the top of it, then it begins to explain itself.”

Ben Quilty, an admirer and a friend, a fellow Archibald-winning artist who lives nearby in the southern highlands, identifies a life-affirming quality that Olsen brings to all his paintings.

“The thing about John is that he always brings it back to a very romantic, incredibly optimistic form of visual language,” Quilty says. “Which kind of goes against the pessimistic ­nature of discussion about contemporary society and the world and politics. That’s about really the heart of what John’s work is about. The joy of being alive.”

Olsen's Sydney sun (or King Sun) (1965).

In recent times, it feels like Olsen has been everywhere. Darleen Bungey’s biography was published in 2014, followed the next year by an Olsen book about the Opera House mural. Last month came the publication of Buns in the Oven, detailing Olsen’s brief stretch running an art school in Sydney, and next month the AGNSW will publish an Olsen recipe book. And the twin-city retrospective will be followed by a separate show at the Newcastle Art Gallery called The City’s Son. “It’s very exciting,” he says, “but it’s very exhausting too.”

There is good cause for Olsen to be distracted: his wife of 27 years, Katharine, has just received treatment for a brain cancer. Olsen says the renowned neurosurgeon Charles Teo led the operation, and she is now recovering back at home. “She’s doing well.”

As soon as he returns from Melbourne, Olsen will start work on his Newcastle commission. He has plenty of ideas: there’s a notebook filled with sketches of the city and its industrial complexion, as well as Eliot’s words about the strong, brown river god, sullen, untamed and intractable. “I’ve got an affection for Newcastle,” he says, “a great affection.”

Does he fear running out of ideas? Olsen points to the Lake Eyre painting in progress against the wall: rivers snake to the sea, a blue expanse framed by the legs of Mother Earth, all rushing together with that inimitable Olsen sense of line and colour.

“Just look at that. That’s entirely different to any interpretation I’ve done of Lake Eyre. And it’s reinforced by a better philosophical attitude.”

The artist leans back in his chair. A moment passes, and the conversation turns to the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, whose poem Ithaka encourages attention on the journey rather than the destination.

“It’s the travelling through, you see,” he says. “There’s a way of painting — Jeffrey Smart did it this way — in which you do a very detailed small work and you scale it up and transfer it on to a canvas.

“To my mind, I only have a theme and I concentrate on where I am, whether it’s Lake Eyre or Sydney Harbour. I’m travelling, but I don’t know where I’m going to finish.”

John Olsen: The You Beaut Country is at the National Gallery of Victoria from September 16 to February 12; then at the Art Gallery of NSW from March 10 to June 12.

John Olsen: The City’s Son is at the Newcastle Art Gallery from November 5 to February 19.


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