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.

6:22 pm

Photo of Allegra SpenderAllegra Spender (Wentworth, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to reflect on the passing of John Olsen AO OBE and the immense contribution he made to Australia's cultural landscape over more than 70 years. Much has been written about John during his lifetime and since his passing because he made such a significant impact on Australia's cultural world. A man of contradictions, John is known both for his larger-than-life personality, his joie de vivre, his charisma and curiosity, as well as his deep contemplation and introspection. His art too, while consistently delicate, sensual and poetic, could capture the dualities at the high-energy teaming landscapes at time and then the vast desolate open plans of deserts at others.

I am very lucky to have the loan of two of his landscapes in my office, Night Bird and Earth Hold, and they are distinctively Olsen—lyrical, natural and quintessentially Australian.

John's talent and lifelong quest to create are hallmarks of his life. He continued producing work right to the end. My sincere condolences to his children, Tim and Louise, and to his grandchildren, to whom John passes the genes of creativity—much valued in my electorate of Wentworth.

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.