John Olsen: The You Beaut Country

October 7, 2016
John Olsen, 'Where the bee sucks, there suck I' (1984-86)
John Olsen, 'Where the bee sucks, there suck I' (1984-86)

John Olsen has always been larger-than-life – a quality that has fostered both adulation and irritation. In the 1950s when he was still searching for a direction, Olsen did some thinking about the nature of art. “If it’s not a game there’s something wrong,” he concluded.

According to his biographer, Darleen Bungey, this would become a life-long credo.

Over the following six decades Olsen (b. 1928) would stay true to this philosophy, even when his work seemed too playful or frivolous for so-called ‘progressive’ taste. Neither did he always meet the standards of seriousness that were de rigueur in Melbourne, where he was often dismissed as a prime example of Sydney flash and dash. It seems to be still happening today.

Given his love-hate relationship with Melbourne it’s ironic that Olsen’s first proper survey exhibition was held at Heide Park and Art Gallery in 1986, and his first genuine retrospective initiated by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1991. Twenty-five years later the NGV has done it again with John Olsen: The You Beaut Country. The show will travel to Sydney in March next year, but the Art Gallery of NSW only got on board when planning was already well advanced. We can at least be thankful it decided to take the show, which makes Olsen a lucky man alongside all those other artists given NGV retrospectives that never got a run in Sydney.

Summer in the you beaut country (1962)

Summer in the you beaut country (1962)

The Olsen show has benefited from an impressive sequence of exhibitions that has given Melbourne’s curators the courage to take risks. If I’d been told beforehand that Olsen’s paintings of the 1960s would be shown in a salon hang with quotations from T.S.Eliot, I would have anticipated a disaster. Instead the crowded arrangement succeeds brilliantly, emphasising the works’ ferocious energy.

Another innovation allows viewers to recline on plywood couches beneath two of Olsen’s best-known ceiling paintings. A row of lights at the head of the couches permits a clear view of pieces that were originally made to cover ceilings in domestic spaces. In that appalling show of Australian art held at the Royal Academy in London, in 2013, Olsen’s resplendent Sydney Sun (1965) was left dangling like a chandelier. At the NGV it gets a more sympathetic treatment.

Although paintings take up the bulk of the exhibition, there is also a suite of tapestries, and a massive ceramic dinner set made in collaboration with potter, Robert Mair. There is a relatively small selection of works on paper, and a glass case featuring an animated display of the journals the artist has kept throughout his life.

The first impression one takes away from this show is one of tremendous joie-de-vivre. This is succeeded by a quieter, more metaphysical turn in the paintings inspired by Lake Eyre; while the Clarendon period produces some of the most beautiful, evocative landscapes of Olsen’s career. It is only with age and disappointment that he paints a handful of dark, introspective works such as that bitter masterpiece, Donde Voy? Self-portrait in the Moments of Doubt (1989).

It has to be emphasised that a selection of 108 paintings represents only a fragment of busy career, but each period is satisfactorily covered. Other works might have added emphasis to the portrait of the artist but not changed it in any fundamental way.

There are many moods explored in this retrospective but Olsen is unable to sustain the gloom and misery that some artists take as their natural habitat. From every bleak moment he bounces back with redoubled verve. Even the works painted this year have a lyricism and simplicity that makes them virtually irresistible.

It helps to have read Bungey’s biography which details the ups and downs of the artist’s life while the art was being created. One sees Olsen as a man of contradictions, almost bipolar in his swings between generosity and selfishness, grandeur and pettiness, self-confidence and insecurity. In pursuit of his muse he has been monstrous to those closest to him, then felt wracked with guilt. He has made many resolutions that didn’t withstand the smallest temptation. His gregarious nature has been perpetually at war with a need for solitude. He has espoused strict principles then allowed himself to be derailed by mere vanity and hedonism.

It makes him seem all-too-human, and those who know him best have shown they will forgive almost anything. The final accounting will reveal there is more to admire than to resent, as Olsen’s sins have usually been committed in the name of his work. Whenever he felt unhappy or unproductive he acted to change his life, to seek new sources of inspiration.

Spanish Encounter (1960)

Spanish Encounter (1960)

It was a lovers’ tiff that inspired the iconic Spanish Encounter (1960) painted in five hours one night. It was like nothing ever seen in Australian art and still has an incredible impact. One may discern the European influences but Olsen has painted with a vigour that was entirely his own. It’s a testosterone-fuelled web of ambiguous imagery bound together by sweeping, livewire arabesques.

It was a breakthrough work that would lead to the You Beaut Country series which revolutionised our view of Australian landscape. Artists such as Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale had given us visions of a sparse, dry land where figures stood like sentinels in the wilderness. Olsen’s version of Australia was bursting with life and incident. The viewer was not asked to identify with a solitary observer but to become a part of the landscape – to feel that buzzing, squirming activity impinging on all sides.

In later years Olsen would tone down the intensity, but his restless, serpentine line would keep twisting through the paintings – as a boundary delimiting a void in the Lake Eyre pictures, and as a source of anecdote and detail in paintings on Spanish themes such as El Amoladar (The Tinker) (1986).

When Olsen says “I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me,” he is not simply being cute. The relative emptiness of a painting such as Arrival at the void (1975) is an attempt to make sense of a region in which decades of desolation could be swept away by a season’s rains. For Olsen it was a metaphor for the blank mind sought by the brush-and-ink painter before he makes his first mark on the paper that brings experience rushing back.

Golden summer, Clarendon (1983)

Golden summer, Clarendon (1983)

A luscious canvas such as Golden summer, Clarendon (1983), is an almost visceral response to the artist’s feeling that the blood was flowing again in his veins, as life and love took a positive turn. The moment may have been fleeting, but it was nonetheless real.

Butcher's cart, Deia de mallorca (2010)

Butcher’s cart, Deia de mallorca (2010)

The tinker in the Spanish painting is of course, Olsen himself, scratching away at works that always need to be fixed and are never perfect. A later picture, Butcher’s cart, Deia de mallorca (2010), is an intimation of mortality. Bits of bloody carrion dangle from the cart like the raw flesh caused by the abrasions of a life time. Ultimately we’re all dead meat.

In Olsen’s oeuvre such a painting is an anomaly rather than the rule. If one were looking for a work that summarised his career it would be hard to go past Where the bee sucks, there suck I (1984-86), an explosive, sun-drenched omelette of a painting in which the artist, the landscape and the minutiae of his life are inextricably entangled. From the top left of the scrum Olsen’s self-portrait surges free, grinning like a skull.

Where the bee sucks’ is an unabashed statement of personal pleasure, and sheer delight in the Australian landscape. The latter is one of the key ingredients in Olsen’s work and perhaps the reason his paintings have never achieved much international recognition. To European eyes the references to the CoBrA school or Antoni Tapies may be obvious, while the overwhelming Australianness of the works remains a mystery. Back home we see it the other way around, for whatever Olsen has learned from others has been put into service of a highly personal vision. One would have to go back to the young Arthur Streeton to find an artist whose love of this country has been so forcefully expressed.

John Olsen: The You Beaut Country
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 12 Feb. Art Gallery of NSW, 10 March – 12 June 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 8th October, 2016