House debates

Tuesday, 23 May 2023


Olsen, Mr John Henry, AO, OBE

6:23 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The Australian art community has lost of one of its unique elder statesman. John Olsen came of age as an artist at a crucial moment in our art history. The 1960s was a time when abstract art was rising in popularity. Many in the art world felt that art depicting landscapes, people or objects would soon become a thing of the past. With the love of landscape that he brought to his work and his energetic, irreverent visual language, Olsen proved them wrong. This was a time when Australia's visual artists were expecting of new ways of representing the Australian landscape. John Olsen made a crucial contribution to that endeavour alongside Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Lloyd Rees, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. He was the last survivor of that auspicious group. So with his death, a chapter on Australia's art history has come to an end.

Olsen travelled widely through the Australian landscape, seeking out its contradictions and tapping into its dynamism. He had a particular affinity for Lake Eyre, describing it as 'a special spiritual place that draws me to it, a soul place of rich emptiness and fullness'.

While best known for his paintings, he was curious about the creative possibilities of other mediums, venturing into printmaking, ceramics and tapestry.

The significance of his work was recognised in his own lifetime. Not all artists are as fortunate. He was awarded the Wynne Prize in 1969 and 1985, the Sulman prize in 1989 and the Archibald in 2005. He was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1977 and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2001, and he was awarded the Centenary Medal on 1 January 2001.

As a leading figure in Australian art, he was an important bridge between generations of artists. He was generous with his time, mentorship and support for younger artists. He always encouraged them to cultivate their own unique perspective on the world and to remain authentic to it. After Olsen's passing, a young artist in my electorate of Macquarie, from Kurrajong Heights, Dan Kyle, described the inspiration that he'd provided. He said:

… if you want to make a gutsy painting, you just look at John Olsen's stuff. There is so much aliveness in the work …

When rock stars die, everyone's so connected to them even though they've never met them. But you feel it.

The Prime Minister was apt in describing John Olsen as a 'poet of the brush', because he was so keenly interested in poetry. I've often admired the stunning mural My Salute to Five Bells at the Sydney Opera House in between performances. The mural was inspired by Kenneth Slessor's poem Five Bells, set at Bennelong Point, and it's impossible to imagine the space below the Concert Hall without that work there.

John Olsen constantly surrounded himself with the creativity of others—literature, opera and visual art—often complemented, we're told, by good food and wine.

His paintings are so accessible because they're just as much a representation of his subjects as they are an expression of his emotional response to them. When viewing his iconic work Sydney Sun at the National Gallery of Australia, you can literally feel the warmth of the sun on your face and the bustle of the city around you.

The energy, exuberance and joy that are so recognisable in Olsen's work reflect the approach he took to life itself. When I spoke with his son, Tim, after his death, I remarked on how obvious it was, listening to the stories of family and friends, that his dad lived life to the full, enjoyed all the world could offer him and has left the world much to remember him by. He set an admirable example of the value of a life lived with creative spirit. He once said, 'Painting is a means of self-enlightenment,' and 'What joy there is in hearing yourself think, and to make that thinking into ink.' His philosophy was pretty clear, whether you're an award-winning artist or not:

Seize the day and don't waste your life. Take a lot of memories with you, when the curtain closes. … this is the only life you'll have … in a free country like Australia, no matter what circumstances you're born in, ultimately life is what you make it.

Olsen didn't waste a day, drawing and painting well into his 10th decade and, indeed, right until the end.

While John Olsen may have left us, his perspective on the country will remain. His irrepressible joy, curiosity and love for the landscape is the basis of an artistic legacy that will long outlast him. He will be celebrated in a state memorial on Monday 29 May at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, jointly delivered by the Australian and New South Wales governments in his honour. A tribute to his career will be beamed onto the Opera House sails during Vivid Sydney, later this month. John Olsen said that be an Australian painter 'is to be an explorer'. We have seen our country in a different light because of John Olsen's exploration.


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