House debates

Tuesday, 23 May 2023


Olsen, Mr John Henry, AO, OBE

6:16 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Today I rise to pay tribute to the late John Olsen AO, OBE. John was an iconic Australian artist, a storyteller, a poet, a larrikin who wore a beret like no other, and a very proud Novocastrian. Indeed, John Olsen is a name that will be forever synonymous with Newcastle art. He was, as the title of his last exhibition in Newcastle makes clear, our city's son.

Born in Newcastle in 1928, just a stone's throw away from the Newcastle Art Gallery, John Olsen maintained a deep affection for and enduring connection to our city throughout his 95 years, frequently visiting Newcastle, loving it as his home. Although he travelled extensively, gaining national and international acclaim, he never forgot where he came from: Newcastle. I had the pleasure of seeing John at his last major exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery in 2016, where he personally created and curated works that reflected his affection for Newcastle and the Hunter region as a whole—our waterways, our beaches, the harbour, the lake, the river and the wetlands. The exhibition achieved the highest attendance in the gallery's history, with close to 30,000 visitors. During the exhibition, John celebrated his 89th birthday. Here he was in the middle of the gallery, surrounded by 500 of his closest friends from the community of Newcastle singing 'Happy Birthday' in unison at the tops of our voices, enjoying his fabulous King Sun & the Hunter 2016 painting-themed birthday cake. It was a sight to behold, and he was in the middle of it, revelling in all of the celebrations that birthdays have to bring.

John's generosity and support of the Newcastle Art Gallery were significant, with several works of art donated to the gallery. His legacy will live on through more than 43 works of art now in the gallery's collection, including Still Life with Boy from 1954, exhibited in the artist's first exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in 1955, and two significant ceiling paintings created in 1964—Life Burst and The Sea Sun of 5 Bells.

John's art defined an era in Australian landscape painting, exploring the totality of landscape and infusing it with the life force that he brought to everything in his work. As Newcastle journalist Scott Bevan observed: As a result, the art was as colourful, as ebullient, and as life affirming as the man who created it. John also made extraordinary contributions to the Australian art community, serving on gallery boards and councils, and offering advice to fellow artists and the art community more broadly. Nick Mitzevich, the director of the National Gallery of Australia and a former director of the Newcastle Art Gallery, recalled John's encouragement and advice for him as a young man starting in the world of art administration. He told Nick to be fearless, to follow his instincts and to promote art in Australia. John's advice to Nick was succinct and direct as always. He said to Nick, 'Dear boy, it is best to stand on the edge of a cliff because that is where you will get the best view.'

John's legacy will be celebrated in this month's Vivid festival in Sydney with a very special tribute to his long and distinguished career on the Opera House sails. John Olsen was one of Australia's most celebrated artists. He was a towering figure in our cultural landscape with a larger-than-life personality. He enabled us to see, experience and imagine our world differently, opening our eyes to the colour and vitality of life. His work has nourished and sustained generations of Australians, and the rich legacy leaves behind will ensure John Olsen's passion, intensity and zest for life will continue to enrich us all for generations to come.

Vale John Olsen.


No comments