John Olsen

1928 - 2023


John Olsen AO OBE was one of Australia's most successful artists. He was commissioned by the Dobell Foundation in 1970 to paint the Sydney Opera House Mural and chose Salute to Five Bells. He won the Wynne twice, once in 1969 for The Chasing Bird Landscape, and again in 1985 for A Road to Clarendon. Olsen was a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW and in 1977 was awarded the OBE for services to the arts. His work is held by all Australian major galleries and in private and international collections in Europe and USA.

Olsen studied at the Julian Ashton School under John Passmore and later at Desiderius Orban School. He lived in Europe between 1957 and 1960 and studied print-making under S W Hayter in Paris. He returned to Europe in 1964 and lived and worked in Spain until 1967. Back in Australia he conducted the Bakery Private Art School for several years before, in the mid seventies, going with the naturalist Vincent Serventy to spend time in central Australia. In 1978 Olsen went to Kenya, Eygpt and South Africa. Although he has moved extensively, seldom remaining in one place more than three years, Olsen has spent most of his life in Australia.

His early work in the fifties was mainly figurative but the break came with the Bicycle Boys and the Bicycle Boys Rejoice in 1955. This was the beginning of Olsen's drive towards freedom and experimentation. Through the extension of line and disintegration and the repetition of form, Olsen created a feeling of vitality and movement. By the early sixties he was fully established after producing Journey into You Beaut Country No 2 and Spanish Encouter.

His major influences include the work and ideas of Klee, Bonnard, De Kooning and Soutine. Like Klee he takes a line on a journey but through the landscape; he has a remarkable ability to draw with a brush. Strong inspiration also comes from the Aboriginal perspective: most of his landscape pictures are aerial views.

Olsen is physically and emotionally involved with the landscape he inhabits. He likes to paint spontaneously capturing the atmosphere of a place. He believes the very essence of painting and drawing is movement: "Nature is never static, it is in constant flux" and has said many times "Don't think of form, think of forming. Forming is a growing developing process, like a plant or living organism".^

Olsen is also recognised for his work in tapestry design, print-making, pottery and creative writing.

^ Hart, Deborah, John Olsen, Craftman House, Sydney, 1991, p1X


Hart, Deborah, John Olsen, Craftman House, Sydney, 1991