Artist Info – John Olsen
John Olsen was born in Newcastle on 21 January 1928. He moved to Bondi Beach with his family in 1935 and began a lifelong fascination with Sydney Harbour. He attended St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill. After leaving school in 1943, he went to the Dattillo Rubbo Art School in 1947 and from 1950 to 1953 studied at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney, and Auburn School from 1950 to 1956. In 1957, Sydney business man, Robert Shaw and his then wife, Annette, supported by art critic Paul Haefliger sponsored John Olsen to go to Europe and paint. After visiting London and Cornwall in England, he left for Europe. Olsen studied printmaking at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17 etching studio in Paris in 1957, followed by two years in Deià Spain. Olsen sent works back from Spain for his first solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries Sydney 6-8 August 1958. In the exhibition catalogue artist’s statement, Olsen referred to Paul Klee’s maxim of ‘taking the line for a holiday’ which became, and still is, Olsen’s talisman. Olsen returned to Sydney in 1960. He wanted to represent Australian culture in such a way that the world would see the diversity in the changing outback seasons.
In 1960 Olsen rocked the Sydney art world with his ground-breaking work, Spanish Encounter, acquired by the Art Gallery of NSW exhibited at Terry Clune Galleries, Sydney. The work, painted in just five hours the night before the exhibition opening encapsulates a vitality stemming from his experience of Spain combined with the pulsating activity of Sydney’s inner-city life. In the early 1960s, Olsen began painting ceilings, the first, ‘Summer in the You Beaut Country’, a commission from art dealer, Frank McDonald ,followed by ‘Darlinghurst Cats’, ‘Sea Sun and Five Bells’ (gifted to the Newcastle Art Gallery in 2011 by Ann Lewis, AO) and ‘Life Burst’ (commissioned by Thelma Clune, also in the Newcastle Art Gallery). ‘Le Soleil’ 1965 was exhibited at Clune Galleries the same year, was acquired by John Armstrong, then Lord Mayor of Sydney, later High Commissioner in London. Armstrong exhibited the ceiling at Australia House in 1973.
His artworks include the Lake Eyre and frog’s series. He is a regular visitor to Lake Eyre, in 2011 he had been invited to be a member of the party in which Paul Lockyer and two other ABC employees died in a helicopter crash at the lake, but declined due to ill-health. He later offered a painting and a poem in memory of those killed. Andrew Taylor, “I was meant to be on that helicopter, says Olsen”, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Aug 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
More recent works include Golden Summer, Clarendon. One of Olsen’s most successful murals, Salute to Five Bells, is currently in the Sydney Opera House. Although he has been labelled as an abstract artist, Olsen rejects this label, stating, “I have never painted an abstract painting in my life”. He describes his work as “an exploration of the totality of landscape”. Olsen published his diaries, under the title ‘Drawn From Life’, in 1997. Olsen’s book My Salute to Five Bells which contains the artist’s thoughts, diary entries and his original drawing for the work, was published by the National Library of Australian 2015.
Olsen is well known for his paintings of frogs and for including frogs in many of his works. In 2013, he began work on his largest painting since Salute to Five Bells. Eight metres by six metres wide, on eight panels, The King Sun was hung in Collins Square in the Melbourne Docklands. The work depicts a brilliant Australian sun (including three frogs). Olsen and his work on the mural are the subject of 2014 documentary The King Sun, directed by New Zealander Tony Williams.