Tribute to John Olsen – Australia’s greatest living painter ?

Tribute to John Olsen – Australia’s greatest living painter ?

olsen hotel artworks

John Olsen has a deserved place as the elder statesman of Australian Art

Olsen’s work has been marked by a deep engagement with the Australian landscape, and he has lived for long periods in different parts of the country and travelled widely in it. He has embraced the Australian bush with love, and absorbed himself in it, like a true poet.

At 83-years old, John Olsen is perhaps the most senior, respected Australian artist. He paints the Australian landscape, its wildlife, larrikinism and rugged intractability. He is essentially an abstract artist with a figurative element applying to many of his works.

John Olsen had a heart bypass operation at St Vincents Hospital in Sydney a few weeks earlier and was unable to attend the opening at the Tim Olsen gallery

Lake Eyre – The Desert Sea, Ruminations on a Empty Landscape – his latest collection of watercolours, a very personal reflection of an ever-changing landscape that Olsen has visited since the 1970’s, depicts the results of the recent flooding to the area and the new life that follows.

Since his first visit to Lake Eyre in the 1970s, he has been fascinated by its shifting colours and sheer size. When he flew across Lake Eyre in May, the lake was filling with water from recent floods.


Every time he visits, he notices something new. The lake fills, drawing fish, birds and animals, then seeps away to nothing. ”There it is and there it isn’t,” he says. ”It’s a place of contradiction … It’s like witnessing a nervous system. It displaces itself. Because there’s a hill there, the water has to go around that way, and so on … It’s a magic thing, because you’re looking at nature as a process.


“It’s making itself. There is a life in the landscape.”

John Olsen an acknowledged master water-colorist, said about being referred to as “Australia’s greatist living painter” — A terrible burden. If only it helped you paint better pictures, but it doesn’t. People expect you to print a Rembrandt masterpiece every day, which is nonsense; no one can do that. Right now, I’m painting a raw prawn. It’s such fun; I love its interrogating feelers. I’m not going to be Rembrandt today.

John Olsen received an Order of Australia (A.O.) in 2001. In 1977 he was awarded the O.B.E. for services to the Arts and in 1993 he was awarded an Australian Creative Fellowship. He was also awarded the Wynne Prize in 1969 and 1985 amongst many other awards throughout his career. His self-portrait Janus Faced won the 2005 Archibald Prize.

His career now spanning well over half a century has been one of success after success. He is represented in virtually every major state institution and in every major collection. He is recognized nationally and internationally as one of Australia’s most significant accomplished and innovative artist since the 60’s.

He bridges the gulf between abstraction and figuration, between high style and populist imagery. His signature paintings, drawings and prints are marked by joyous colours and energetic lines.

Olsen combines his child-art type of imagery with a highly intellectual sophistication. Despite his omnivorous reading habits and his willingness to quote a range of writers and philosophers, the power of Olsen’s work came from his ability to respond with tremendous spontaneity to his surroundings.

Although he has been labelled as an abstract artist, Olsen rejects this accusation, stating, “I have never painted an abstract painting in my life”. He describes his work as “an exploration of the totality of landscape”.

“Australian landscape is something like a dog’s hind leg. It’s based on asymmetry.”


“What joy there is in hearing yourself think, and to make that thinking into ink.”


His paintings reveal an oeuvre that could only have been produced within the Australian context.

He has taken as his chief subject the Australian landscape, and he has given expression to aspirations that permeate much of Australian culture. His acute evocations of local wildlife, Aussie larrikins and the immense, intractable landmass itself constitute an art that is regional but in no sense provincial.

In Olsen’s work there is no foreground/ middle ground/ background schema, nor any sign of European landscape’s concern with “human scale.” Instead he employs simultaneously the contrary vantages of naturalist and geographer or, to put it another way, the viewpoints of frog and eagle.

A typical Olsen painting combines an implied aerial view with an ambiguous and seemingly unpremeditated figuration. His characteristically quizzical line and irregular squiggles and dots deftly render countless organisms, large and minute.

Olsen believes that the Australian landscape is best viewed from the air, and is full of praise for the aerial pictures of the Outback that Sidney Nolan made in the late 1940s. His own method is very different to Nolan’s, being more abstract, more fluid and incidental. While Nolan’s view of the desert has a monumental quality, Olsen’s is as personalized as hand-writing.

Even when he is referring to the outback landscape, usually noted for its austerity and inhospitality, Olsen’s imagery teems with life. Yet the same lines sometimes read as geological mappings.

Although he has dabbled in many genres Olsen sees himself primarily as a landscape painter. Almost every painting is generated by a place, even his Archibald Prize-winning portrait, which superimposed his own features on a bleak desert landscape.

He has a particular affection for areas such Lake Eyre, the great salt lake that is dry most of the time. He says it makes him think of “Chinese things, like the richness of emptiness.” More mundanely, he sees it as “the sink hole of Australia.”

On his visits he’ll accumulate drawings and photographs that he uses as an aide-memoire, but the sense of place he is trying to capture tends to be re-invented in the tranquility of the studio.

“When you have the overview from the air, “he says, “you can see nature in process. This is entirely different from that idea of the landscape that has a foreground, a middle distance and background. In my paintings the landscape almost writes itself. I’m very influenced by the landscape, but I need a kind of philosophical steadiness to be able to probe into it.”

His impressive and noted works are marked by an intense engagement with the Australian landscape. Plants, birds and animals also feature in his works. He captures a spiritual quality with his unique use of line and form

Olsen has spent a lot of time in the Australian outback and is absolutely fascinated by the torrential weather; the way everything can be so dry and then there’s a storm, and then suddenly life bursts out. Frogs appear from under the ground, and fish start to swim. A whole landscape of rivers and estuaries comes to life.

He possesses a great wit that manifests in his imagery – this is a trait that sets him apart from his contemporaries and has made him one of Australia’s most popular artists, without compromising his artistic vision.


Olsen’s deep commitment and sensitivity to the natural environment is evident in all of his landscapes.

His portraits of Passmore, Rees, Bonnard, Rothko, Degas, Renoir and other admired artists of the past, Mediterranean culture, the food, the sun and his passion for Oriental philosophy and calligraphy have provided the inspiration essential to his oeuvre.

His creative output has been enormous and he has worked in a variety of media including tapestry, ceramics, oils, watercolours and gouache and has created a body of work which has assured his place in the history of Australian art. He has also produced some of the most collectable portfolios of prints ever published in this country.

John Olsen is one of Australia’s most significant and accomplished artists and is recognized for this both nationally and internationally for his energetic and distinctive art.

Olsen’s name is widely associated with his exuberant and colloquial You Beaut Country series which firmly established his reputation in the early 1960s.

He is also famous for his interpretation of Sydney harbour in his commission for the Sydney Opera House called The Salute to Five Bells undertaken in the 1970s.

Plants, birds and animals began to feature in his works during the 1970s and 80s when he travelled extensively across the country, giving new insights into Australia’s regional and desert landscapes though he has always sought to capture a spiritual and universal dimension to the landscape and the natural world in his work.

anti archibald protest in 1953 with john olsen left front

About John Olsen

Olsen was twenty-eight years old. He had already studied at the best art schools Sydney had to offer: firstly with Desiderius Orban for ten weeks at Circular Quay and then, from 1950 to 1953, at Julian Ashton’s at The Rocks.

Interestingly, both these schools were right on Sydney Harbour, a theme that was to stay with Olsen all his life.

It was at the Julian Ashton Art School that Olsen began to develop his life-long dedication to drawing. His teacher, John Passmore, was relentless in his demands for graphic veracity. All had to be examined – anatomy, bones and die muscular – and understood in the terms of function.

But it was really John Passmore, whom Olsen met at Ashton’s, who made a lasting impression, ‘I am eternally grateful for his encouragement in my student years’, says Olsen, ‘Passmore had great insights into the subtleties of drawing’.

Graphic marks are the essence of Olsen’s work, be they in prints or in large paintings such as Spanish Encounter in the Art Gallery of New South Wales or his Five Bells in die Sydney Opera House

Olsen was doing it tough at the time. He was up at four in the morning cleaning offices before starting classes at eight thirty. The curriculum at Ashton’s centered on life drawing on Monday and Friday, life-painting on Wednesday, and evening classes three times a week.

On his days off Olsen could be found in the life-drawing classes of Godfrey Miller at the East Sydney Technical College.

Orban, Miller, and Passmore these were magic names for anyone aspiring to become an artist in the 1950s and early 1960s in Sydney.

Miller had a private income. He lived as a recluse in Paddington, and was one of the most eccentric artists ever to lift a pencil in Sydney.

This painting is one of a small group of works that Olsen undertook around the mid-1950s. The idea for using the subject of ‘bicycle boys’ in his drawings and paintings was in part based on his impressions of cyclists he saw on visits to Centennial Park in Sydney

Here he took the Orban/ Miller/Passmore inheritance right to the edge. It was art abstracted from realism to which Olsen added a map, or chart of the spiritual responses to such physical stimuli.

Olsen’s bicycles still described at one moment in time, from a single viewpoint, a frozen instant or episode – not the whole journey described from numerous moments in time and different viewpoints. His bicycles provided both structure and story; line and mass; armature and flesh. Line is offered as a framework on which those rectilinear forms are rubbed and scrubbed.

“I used to go down to Centennial Park … they had a lot of bicycle riding. And I was rather fascinated by the sort of difference of the human body weight to the lightness of the bicycle. It had a kind of airiness about it. And they used to sort of ride up and down hills; and the final moments of a race … the winner would arrive and be absolutely totally exhausted.  … and they used to embrace each other and still there was that strange kind of balance thing. … I guess it sort of stands as a sort of disparity and airiness of human rejoicing with the peculiar-ness of the bicycle shapes themselves”

There were many other influences around at the time. Students at Ashton’s and East Sydney Technical School fingered the pages of Werner Haftmann’s monograph on Paul Klee. Everyone wanted to take a ‘line for a walk’, paint a magic square, and make the invisible visible as advocated by this Swiss whiz Paul Klee, Bauhaus master and author of the influential text, The Thinking Eye. Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art was popular also.

It was, as the Australian art critic Robert Hughes recalled decades later -in his book Nothing if not Critical (1990) – as if… there is no tyranny like the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece … .In Australia we had art schools teaching people how to paint Cézannes, but our museums had no Cézannes to show us’.

So, when Sydney businessman, Robert Shaw, offered the possibility of private sponsorship for Olsen to work in Europe, to study in the flesh the paintings he had only seen in reproduction, there was no hesitation on his part.

John Olsen’s talent was recognized when he exhibited in the ‘Direction 1’ exhibition held in 1956 at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney.

Immediately following this influential exhibition he left the shores of Australia and embarked on a three-year privately sponsored journey to Europe.

At 28 years of age, he sailed on the Orion in December 1956. After six weeks travelling via Cape Town and the Canary Islands, he arrived in London in January 1957.

Olsen remembers, ‘It was a bleak winter’s day and the atmosphere was rather depressing’. Several months later, after a brief visit to Cornwall, he travelled to Paris and was re-acquainted with an old art school friend, Earle Backen.

Backen was studying with the English-born printmaker S.W. Hayter in Montparnasse. Olsen, impressed by Hayter’s philosophy and methods, immediately signed up and began working in one of the most advanced print workshops in the world – Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17′.

Whilst abroad he spent most of his time in Spain, falling in love with the Mediterranean.

“I became involved with this idea the Mediterranean is the bath of our civilization. Its olives, its remarkable pictures, its history. It’s a great thing to come from Australia which has none of this to come to this remarkable compost heap of civilisation.”

From 1956-1960 Olsen lived abroad and journeyed from England to Paris and then to Portugal, Spain and the Island of Majorca.

His later travels (in 1974) included Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and America. ( which has fuelled his love of the landscape and its inhabitants)

The three years he had just spent in Europe had inoculated him against the cultural anxieties that gnawed away at his peers, who never stopped wondering how their work fitted the international templates.

Like artists of the past, such as Tom Roberts, John Longstaff and George Lambert, Olsen was enjoying the electrical charge that surges through an Australian when he returns home after a long absence.

Olsen returned to Australia in 1960 convinced that his place as an artist was here, however he found it impossible to continue to make prints because of the lack of facilities. So after three years in Europe, he plunged into a series of paintings that established his reputation as one of Australia’s great modern artists

Olsen’s line had started as a walk that was soon to become a run, and by 1960 – in his triumphal painting of his memories of Spain entitled Spanish Encounter – it became a gallop.

In 1960, Olsen returned to Australia after three years in Europe, spent predominantly in Spain. Along with a range of artistic sources which he had encountered in Europe, the environment of Sydney provided a rich basis of inspiration.

After his experience of living in an old Mediterranean culture, he found the local environment magically vibrant and alive. He was struck by the brightness of the light, the fluctuating topography of the harbour and the robust energy of urban life.

He became interested in the notion of our interdependence with the natural world and this became central to his art. Olsen became closely identified with the city.

As Laurie Thomas wrote in the introduction to Olsen’s Opera House journal, Salute to Five Bells, Olsen ‘has created Sydney – its harbour, life, vulgarity, beauty, movement – in the way that Drysdale created the outback.

As opposed to the Renaissance conception of perspectival space, Olsen wanted to create ‘an all-at-once world’.

As he later wrote in his Opera House journal: ‘I like to be in the middle of a buzzing honey pot of images changing and evolving … I like painting to have a human unpredictability. In works such as Sydney sun, the use of multiple viewpoints – incorporating what is above and below, inside and outside, the microcosm and macrocosm – also has affinities with Indigenous art which Olsen greatly admired.


Olsen began travelling extensively throughout Australia introducing a spiritual and mystical insight into the landscapes he paints and the life that inhabits them.

After his early abstract works of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s his work became increasingly figurative and recognisable forms developed as his brush danced and walked rapidly across the canvas. He has given us a new interpretation of the Australian scene, redefining the Australian landscape by shifting the viewpoint from ground level to aerial perspective thus creating the horizon-less landscape.

The viewer could now observe the meandering rivers and billabongs and experience the landscape as a geographical painted map.

Olsen has painted the subtle tones of the deserts in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, the precarious balance of life and death surrounding Central Australia’s Lake Eyre, and South Australia’s Coorong National Park where he explored the complex inhabitants of the wetlands and the microscopic ecological drama beneath the water line.

Olsen had experimented with figurative and abstract idioms alike, emerging with a mature style that made a mockery of the distinction.

The aerial perspective he employed was used increasingly during the late 1940s and 1950s, when many Australian artists took their first aeroplane flights. This viewpoint effectively disrupted normal landscape views, giving a fresh look at the great breadth of the Australian landscape.

Olsen also found inspiration in his love of Australian vulgarity, and deliberately imbued his work with an irreverent, almost unfinished, quality.

The ‘Australian larrikin’ is also embodied in the painting’s exuberance and playful energy, and is reflected in the vernacular language of the title

After returning to Australia from Europe in the early 1960s, John Olsen produced a series of paintings based on his responses to the country around Sydney.

Journey into the you beaut country no. 2 1961 is an energetic blend of line, colour and form which envelops the viewer through its swirling perspective. Representational elements, including the snake which winds its way across the canvas and the hand print at the centre of the work, contrast with the abstract elements of the painting.

Though Journey into the you beaut country no. 2 was influenced by contemporary international developments in painting, Olsen’s subject and approach is distinctly Australian.

The aerial perspective he employed was used increasingly during the late 1940s and 1950s, when many Australian artists took their first aeroplane flights. This viewpoint effectively disrupted normal landscape views, giving a fresh look at the great breadth of the Australian landscape.

Olsen also found inspiration in his love of Australian vulgarity, and deliberately imbued his work with an irreverent, almost unfinished, quality. The ‘Australian larrikin’ is also embodied in the painting’s exuberance and playful energy, and is reflected in the vernacular language of the title.

His You Beaut Country series exploded the stereotypical view of the landscape as a placid ensemble of sheep and gum trees. He also challenged Russell Drysdale’s vision of a wasteland bathed in the perpetual orange glow of a furnace. Suddenly the bush became a joyous place, bursting with life and incident

Journey into the You Beaut Country no. 2 1961 is an energetic blend of line, colour and form which envelops the viewer through its swirling perspective. Representational elements, including the snake which winds its way across the canvas and the hand print at the centre of the work, contrast with the abstract elements of the painting.

Though Journey into the you beaut country no. 2 was influenced by contemporary international developments in painting, Olsen’s subject and approach is distinctly Australian.

Olsen had first dabbled in lithography in 1963 when he was commissioned by the Art Gallery Society of Victoria to make a print with Janet Dawson at the Gallery A Print Workshop


“I recall coming into the Harbour in the early morning after being in Europe for several years, the surrounding hills seemed to cradle the sun’s light – like a benevolent bath, bubbling and effervescent. The image of things growing, pullulating from the sun’s source.”

Sydney sun reveals John Olsen’s innovative approach to painting and his imaginative response to place that came to the fore in the 1960s. Compared with his earlier more intimate work, The bicycle boys, here he demonstrates a much greater confidence not only in painting what is seen but also what is felt and experienced.

Sydney sun is an optimistic, life-enhancing work that encompasses the exuberant vitality of place. Beyond specificities of location, the painting also has universal implications. It conveys the artist’s passionate, imaginative response to the natural world. From the powerful life-giving energy of the golden orb, the rays become exploratory, meandering tentacles, at one with the plant forms and ecstatic scatter of pollen, at one with the various irrational creatures that have come under its pulsating spell

Sydney sun was originally conceived as a ceiling painting.

This is one of the most significant examples of the small number of ceiling paintings that Olsen created in the 1960s. The first public viewing of the ceilings occurred in exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne in 1965.

There was a time when Olsen had so much energy he painted ceilings in Antipodean echo of Michelangelo, but now he says: “There’s a period in your life when you don’t have all that joy and all that juice, and you can’t really work with the same enthusiasm.

I’d love to be Spontaneous Me again, but in the last decade I find that my heart, my sensibility, is more inclined towards the still point of a turning world. Every day you seek to find a way to generate life from the dying embers.”

It wasn’t until 1970, when staying with Clifton Pugh at ‘Dunmoochin’, Victoria, that he was able to recommence printmaking to a significant extent. Pugh had just returned from Hayter’s school full of enthusiasm and the two of them purchased an etching press.

In 1972, John Olsen was commissioned to paint a huge mural for the Sydney Opera House. Inspired by a poem by Kenneth Slessor, he called it Salute to Five Bells — the story of Slessor’s friend Joe Lynch who drowned off a ferry.


Five Bells, the large Olsen work which hangs in the foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW, is about Sydney Harbour being the centre of life.

Over the years, Olsen has travelled much through the country, living in places like the old goldmining town of Hill End, on a Victorian commune with Clifton Pugh, and to the South Australian countryside where he painted some of his most lyrical work.

There have been a number of constants in Olsen’s art.

Olsen calls himself a “wandering minstrel,” greatly influenced and inspired by the Australian landscape.

His work shows none of the European concern for scale. His loosely brushed canvases have no distinguishable fore, middle or background, and they are bought alive with light-filled, scrawly images that at the same time manage to give both a bird’s eye and snake’s eye view.

Best known and much loved are his etchings of frogs, birds and plants, and animals observed in Australian outback locations such as Lake Eyre, Coopers Creek and Kakadu. He has also used the print medium to portray artist colleagues, his beloved Sydney Harbour Bridge and his passion for cooking-particularly paella!

1. Lake Eyre

In 1974, he travelled to Lake Eyre when it was flooded for only the second time in recorded history. It was a pivotal moment for the artist – “It’s infinitely mysterious and I am only really touching it, I am only really saying ‘hey this is worth looking at’ and there are still many Australias to be discovered.”

In 1979, printer Fred Genis who had now established a studio in dural NSW, invited Olsen to make a series of lithographs on his outback travels. They collaborated on the series of prints, Down Under.

Genis had introduced Olsen to transfer paper, and the directness of the process allowed the prints to have a freshness and spontaneity not possible with etching. For Olsen this method was ‘fabulous for picking up brush marks, any stain or blot’.

The portfolio was the culmination of various trips to Lake Eyre, and the celebration of life as experienced by Olsen when the lake flooded in 1975 is clearly evident. In riotous profusion, pelicans, kangaroos, fish and other wildlife appear to jump from the paper.

Nowhere else in Australia conjures up the overwhelming sense of emptiness you feel when you stand on the edge of Lake Eyre, John Olsen says.

The painter and master watercolourist, now in his 80s, has visited the lake many times since his first trip in 1974, and the ”feeling that you are standing on the edge of a void” has inspired many of his paintings.

1975 john olsen at lake eyre by frank hodgkinson

This portrait of John Olsen is a candid and spontaneous study made in 1975 on a trip to Lake Eyre, where Hodgkinson accompanied Olsen, Tim Storrier and naturalist Vincent Serventy.

The lake was flooded for the first time in decades, with a resulting abundance of life attracting artists and scientists alike.

Olsen talks about the great inland explorers – Sturt, Burke and Wills, Eyre himself – and the national sense of disappointment that followed when no inland sea or great pasture lands were found. Australians have never quite shaken the idea that the essence of our landscape is a dead heart.

Seeing it flooded in all this eruption of life forms … was a kind of philosophical event for him, because it told him that there was something in the heart of the country that was feeding the perimeters and yet we thought it was the other way around.

2, Birds

After the recent drought-breaking rains, John spent three months around Lake Eyre –- in times of drought the salt-water basin is the lowest point on the continent.

Though John now lives in the NSW Southern Highlands he still finds more of a magnetic power in the desert.

He says that Australian colonial artists, like Aborigines, have traditionally taken to the desert in the quest to depict the national psyche. “There’s still many artists doing landscapes, but over the last 15 years there’s been a decline in interest of younger artists. But to me (the desert) is endless.”

“The sheer scale of it … Lake Eyre’s filling up with fish, seagulls, thousands of pelicans,” he says. “It’s full of life. It’s a very enigmatic situation and has a lot of curiosity in it.”


The Northern Territory works are of similar compositions, the paintings representing the mood of the river and the animals, fish and plant life it contains

3. Frogs and Lily Ponds

Recurring throughout his oeuvre is one of Olsen’s most financially successful themes, the frog. Indeed, his son Tim comments, “He often jokes that frogs used to pay my school fees!”

4. Friends


Olsen’s life has been marked by a generosity of spirit, by the vitality of his friendships with men, including many of Australia’s leading painters, and with women, and by his personal struggles which have led to some of the greatest works of Australian landscape painting.

5. Sydney

Sydney was for many years the focus of his painting, in particular the harbour which he describes as a “big blue bitch … And for a long period of time because of my childhood at Bondi, the sea was my point of fascination. It represented all those things of youth and joy and love.”

Olsen at 80 is painting with the verve of a 20-year-old but with an ability to keep his colours fresh and unmuddied that only comes with long experience.

Paintings such as Sydney Harbour, Spring Tide and Lunch At Doyle’s (both 2007) are as lively as anything he has ever attempted. It is as though the artist has stepped over a threshold and stopped worrying about the encroaching years. On the contrary, he seems to be enjoying himself immensely. And when Olsen is enjoying himself, that’s when he is painting well.

Many of these pictures embrace the idea of a second childhood. Olsen harks back to memories of popping bluebottles on the beach when he was a boy or a king tide overlapping the walls of the Bondi Icebergs pool.

On canvas these memories are made wonderfully vivid – particularly the spectacle of the swimmers in the Icebergs pool, thrashing about like raw, pink prawns in a seething green soup. One can almost measure Olsen’s high spirits by the quantity of looping, twisting lines of paint that whirl around like spaghetti unravelling in boiling water.

6. Animals


7. Food

“The most important thing that everyone should bring to the dining experience is a certain generosity of spirit. Just remember that there are two kinds of people: lovers and others. And you know what you can do with the others.” – – John Olsen

When Robert Shaw ( a wealthy sydney businessman)  sponsored John Olsen in 1957, to go to Europe to study art – on the proviso he lived anywhere but London – it started a lifelong desire to create colourful culinary, as well as artistic, masterpieces.

His first stop was Paris and the Rue Mouffetard market. Then he hopped on a Lambretta scooter, with little more than a copy of Elizabeth David’s iconic cookbook, Mediterranean Food, and headed to Spain, where he was to have that life-changing moment.


In 2006 his 1969 painting “Love in the Kitchen” sold for $1.09 million

Culinaria was John Olsen’s 2008 exhibition featuring a series of paintings celebrating the emotion of food and its occasions – based on his favourite recipes.

The exhibition, a vibrant celebration of Olsen’s zeal for Mediterranean cuisine stemmed from time spent living in Majorca, Spain in the 1950s where he shared a house with eminent British writer Robert Graves.

Olsen lived on Majorca for four years, where he learnt to cook “peasant food” from locally-grown produce. “I realised these peasants lived better than most Australians.”

En route to the Spanish island of Majorca, artist John Olsen had an epiphany in Barcelona’s La Boqueria market. The year was 1957 but, growing up in 1930s Australia, he thought green beans were meant to be khaki-coloured and peas were grey and mushy. Born in Newcastle in 1928, where his father ran a clothing shop in Hunter Street, he says his mother as a cook was typical of her time: everything was over-boiled.

It was that first visit to a market in the Catalan capital, where he discovered the real colours of vegetables and ones he’d never heard of like eggplant, pimientos and green peppers.

“It was a surrealist scene of saffron-coloured chickens and ducks,” he says of the Barcelona market. “Black and white studded garlic blood sausages, vegetables of vivid green and red, sad purple peppers, zucchinis, onions and eggplants.

“Gum trees and desert landscapes disappeared. The Road to Damascus, for me, was just off the Ramblas.”

Olsen, now 82, says that market visit gave him the desire to learn to cook. “When I left Australia for Europe in 1957, I couldn’t even grill a chop,” he says.

When he returned to live in Sydney’s Watsons Bay in 1961, he recalls a still desperate food scene, with only one good Sydney restaurant, the Hungry Horse, in Paddington. Instead of dining out, he began to cook for his family and often an appreciative audience of hungry artists.

He’d clamber into a small dinghy with his son, Tim, and occasionally author Patrick White (a fellow cook) and drift around the pilings of the local wharf cutting off rich, black mussels.

“We had no competition – Australians were still very conservative when it came to mussels,” he says.

He’d return with them in a sack, heat up the old laundry copper, add copious amounts of garlic and flagons of white wine and an army of students would arrive with plenty of bread to soak up the broth

Tim says he can often see in his father’s art work “the drizzling of olive oil, the floods of saffron, the sprinkling of paprika and the smudge of truffle” – the cooking he grew up with.As a child, his favourite dish made by dad was spanish tortilla; Olsen’s daughter, Louise, says hers was eggs with sardines.

Other regular guests at the Olsen dinner table included gallery owner and wine lover Rudy Komen and artists Sidney Nolan, Leonard French and Fred Williams (who Olsen recalls fondly as being “good on the tooth”)

After 53 years in the kitchen, Olsen has created a collection of his favourite recipes in Culinaria – the Cuisine of the Sun, which accompanies an exhibition of food-inspired paintings at Tim Olsen Gallery, Woollahra.

With help from the likes of celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver (Andy Harris, editor of Jamie magazine, is food editor of Olsen’s collection) and Rick Stein, Olsen has paired his favourite dishes with art he has painted from memorable meals.

Most dishes are Spanish-inspired because it is the country that most influenced his food palate and colour palette. He has cooked all the recipes and in many of the paintings you can spot his bereted bald pate appearing as chef.

“I am not into fashionable cooking, my interest is in the emotional impact of food, the expectation of it, the succouring and savouring of it,” he says..


At a recent lunch Olsen cooked with his favourite restaurateur, Lucio Galletto, he described in detail one of his signature dishes – arroz nero made with cuttlefish ink – stage whispering the ingredients and the precise placing of the red strips of pimiento over the indigo rice, with great dramatic tension.

“Sunshine, I am telling you it’s like a painting,” he enthused, emphasising the sun is the thing he wants people to see in all his art. “Plating up” has always been a favourite part of preparing a meal for “the maestro”, as Galletto calls him.

The meal – gambas a la plancha, arroz negro and mango with gelato – was a masterpiece of colour and taste. “It’s as if the dishes fell off the wall onto the plates,” Tim says.

The exhibition spans the cuisine of France and Spain with dishes/paintings ranging from Duck a L’Orange to Paella Valencia, Squid Ink Risotto and the famous French soup The Bouillabaisse. According to Olsen he had an epiphany in the market off La Ramblas in Valencia,

“There, in this market were things that I had never seen, a surrealist scene of saffron-coloured chickens and ducks – heads n’ all suspended from the ceiling, hams, salamis – Catalan pimento sausages, Butifarra, Sobrasada, black and white studded garlic blood sausages – then vegetables of vivid green and red, sad purple-peppers, zucchinis, onions and eggplants. Oz gum trees and desert landscapes disappeared.”

The warm Spanish tones carried over into his painting where the vibrant oranges and reds are punctuated by deep rich browns and vivid sea coloured blues. The surrealism witnessed by Olsen in the market appears in many of the canvases including Canard & l’Orange where the form of the duck is barely visible among the swirls and blobs of the same colour.

John Olsen, Seafood BBQ, 2010


Receiving his honorary degree at the University of Newcastle in 2011, Mr John Olsen AO, OBE – Doctor of Letters honoris causa



1928 : Born in Newcastle, NSW

1935 : Family moves to Bondi Beach

1939 : John becomes a boarder at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill

1943 : Leaves school to work as a clerk, then becomes a freelance cartoonist for publications such as Man and Fashion Design

1947 : Attends Datillo Rubbo Art School; his family provide no moral or financial support for his desire to become a painter.

1950 : Attends Julian Ashton Art School where he studies under John Passmore, and later Godfrey Miller at East Sydney Technical College. He became a member of the group of students of John Passmore known as the Contemporary Art Society.

1951 : Marries Mary

1952-55 : Exhibits with the Society of Artists

1953 : Does a ten week class with Desiderius Orban in 1953

1955 : First major exhibition, at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney.

1955 : Moves to Melbourne

1955 : He held his first exhibition in 1955, and with his friend Robert Klippel developed an ethic of trying to ‘paint of the bloodstream’ – to commit to the act of painting as a total experience, a totality of random sensations.

1956 : Participates in an important abstract and abstract expressionist exhibition, ‘Direction 1’.

1956 : Moves back to sydney living in Victoria Street Potts Point

1956 : Olsen’s 1956 exhibition with Klippel, amongst others, launched abstract expressionism on the Sydney art scene

1957 : At the prompting of Sydney Morning Herald art critic Paul Haefliger, Sydney businessman Robert Shaw and his wife Annette pay Olsen to go to Europe to paint; Olsen lives for much of this time in Majorca, an island off the coast of Spain, and is influenced by the Mediterranean, its cooking and culture; he begins his journals

1957 : Olsen met up with Earle Backen, whom he had known in Sydney and who was studying at Hayter’s Atelier 17 print workshop; Olsen began studies in intaglio printmaking at the workshop shortly after.

1960 : Returns to Australia and, after a few weeks at Hill End, settles again in Sydney; paints his first major work, ‘Spanish Encounter’; in the next two years he does the ‘You Beaut Country’ paintings and becomes recognised as a major artist; teaches at East Sydney Technical College and marries Valerie ( their children are Louise (jewellery designer) and Tim (Paddington gallery owner))

1964 ” Joie de Vivre tapestry

1965-67 : Lives in London and Portugal

1968 : Establishes the Bakery Art School, Sydney

1969-71 : Lives at Dunmoochin, Victoria, in the artist community started by Clifton Pugh, where he worked with artists such as Fred Williams and Albert Tucker; wins Wynne Prize. He then moves back to Sydney.

1973 : Completes Sydney Opera House mural ‘Salute to Five Bells’, based on Kenneth Slessor’s poem.

1970s-1980s : Tours through central Australia with naturalist vincent Serventy, and later Egypt, Kenya and South Africa.

1977 : Received O.B.E

1980 : Lives with Noela Hjorth, at first in Wagga Wagga, then for seven years in Clarendon, South Australia

1984 : Does murals for Victorian Arts Centre

1985 : Wins the Wynne Prize for ‘A Road to Clarendon: Autumn’

1988 : Paints mural for Darling Harbour Project, Sydney

1989 : Marries Katharine

1990 : Moves to Rydal, out of Bathurst, NSW

1991 : Retrospective at National Gallery of Victoria, tours Australia

1997 : Publishes his autobiography, ‘Drawn from Life’

1999 : Moves to Southern Highlands of NSW


1960 : Rockdale Prize

1961 : H.C. Richards Memorial Prize (Queensland Art Gallery), Perth Prize; 1962 Royal Sydney Show Prize

1963 : Georges Art Prize, Melbourne; 1964 Launceston Prize, Tasmania; 1969 Wynne Prize (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

1977 : Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for services to the Arts

1985 : Wynne Prize (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

1993 : Australian Creative Fellowship;

2001 : Order of Australia (O.A.)

2005 : Archibald Portrait Prize.

anti archibald protest 1953 with john olsen in front


John Olsen’s work is represented in all Australian state gallery collections, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and regional galleries Australia wide. He is also represented in institutional, corporate and private collections in Australasia, United Kingdom, Europe and the United States of America.

Selected Bibliography

1973 : Virginia Spate, John Olsen, Georgian House, Melbourne

1973 : John Olsen, Salute to Five Bells: John Olsen’s Opera House Journal, Angus and Robertson, Sydney

1980 : John Olsen, My Complete Graphics, 1957-79, Gryphon Books, Melbourne

1981 : Sandra McGrath and John Olsen, The Artist and the Desert, Bay Books, Sydney and London

1986 : John Olsen: Gold, exhibition catalogue, introduction by Edmund Capon, essay by John Olsen, AGNSW, Sydney

1991 : Deborah Hart, John Olsen, Craftsman House

1997 : John Olsen, Drawn from Life, D&S, Sydney

2007 : John Olsen, ‘A Journey into You Beaut Country, by Jenny Zimmer & Ken McGregor, MacMillan Press


About Tim Olsen Gallery

The Tim Olsen Gallery opened in 1993 is located at purpose-designed premises on Jersey Road Woollahra.

Tim has cultivated a stable of artists that he feels presents a comprehensive and poignant view of the contemporary arts in Australia. With a continually changing exhibition calendar they present the work of both emerging and established artists.

Foremost in the gallery’s stable is John Olsen, now regarded as Australia’s most esteemed living artist. In addition to the staging of countless critically acclaimed exhibitions the gallery has hosted the launch of many books devoted to his unique and ingenious art making.

Tim has also negotiated the sale of some of the most significant paintings in Olsen’s oeuvre to both private and institutional collections. Both John and Tim’s enthusiasm for works on paper has also inspired the evolution of the Tim Olsen Gallery Annex to a specifics works on paper space in 2007.

Tim Olsen has spent his entire life immersed in the visual arts. He learnt at home by watching his father, leading Australian artist, John Olsen , and later pursued his own studies in art.

He completed 7 years at art school in Sydney, majoring in painting and printmaking followed by a Bachelor of Art Education.


Janus – Faced 2  /  Archibald Prize  winner 2005

There have been many occasions during the past 40 years when Olsen’s palette has become mired in tones of brown, red and black, partly as a reflection of the dry Australian landscape but sometimes as an indication of his own moods.

When his Self-Portrait Janus Faced won the 2005 Archibald Prize, many expressed dismay that such a gloomy canvas could take out the award. It was, however, a moving, complex picture that turned a cold eye on age and mortality.

Janus is the Roman god of doorways, passages and bridges. In art he is depicted with two heads facing in opposite directions. “I think that the poem casts light in dark places,” says Olsen of his portrait. “It informs the viewer. Janus had the ability to look backwards and forwards and when you get to my age you have a hell of a lot to think about.”

After being announced the winner of this year’s Archibald Prize, the artist took to the podium, waved his rabbit-headed walking stick in triumph and declared: “I have pulled a rabbit out of the hat.”

But as he spoke about his work, Self-Portrait Janus-Faced, its allusions to his beloved Australian landscape and how, just as the Roman god Janus could look forward and back, he was looking back on a long life.

“You have to be a certain age to be able to look at the past,”. Referring to the painting and the sun that merges with the top of his head, he remarked: “It’s a setting sun, and I think that’s appropriate.”

John Olsen was surprised at the reaction when he won the 2005 Archibald prize with his Self-portrait, Janus faced. “I felt impaled by it,” he says. “For three months it was impossible to walk the streets of Sydney or Bowral without being congratulated by very nice people. I was always being asked for interviews. And then there was the Archibald lunch, with three hundred guests all waiting to hear what ‘Janus faced’ meant.

I got the trophy, but I won’t be entering ever again. Just grab the prize and run is my advice.”

John Olsen’s artist statement about his Archibald self portrait comes in the form of a poem, which he wrote this year:

Janus Faced

Sitting this afternoon in the studio,
Summer’s gone.
Now’s the time of freckled leaves
& longer shadows.

Men & women after sixty
In slippered feet,
Pause on the stairs,
Janus faced.

Self delights in well worn brush
On an ancient palette.
Time trickles & avoids defeat.
Janus Faced

Paul Lockyer very generously opened John Olsen’s Lake Eyre exhibition last week, we are all deeply saddened to hear of the tragic accident at Lake Eyre that took both his life and his ABC colleagues.

1 Comment

  1. Betsie Joseph - March 13, 2020

    Please give me Golden Summer 1983 description.

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