John Olsen is one of Australia’s great­est liv­ing artists. Here, his son, gal­lerist Tim Olsen, who helped cu­rate a new ret­ro­spec­tive, re­flects on his bo­hemian child­hood and gives a rare in­sight into his fa­ther’s pow­er­ful abil­ity and in­flu­ence.

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Gal­lerist Tim Olsen gives a rare in­sight into his fa­ther John Olsen’s pow­er­ful abil­ity and in­flu­ence.

My ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of the stu­dio in Sydney’s Wat­sons Bay. It was here that I spent my first years, dwarfed by can­vases that loomed like vast apos­tles, and I can still smell the gum tur­pen­tine, feel the spent tubes be­neath my bare feet, see the scraped pal­ettes, the oil­stained rags, the uncorked bot­tle, a smock hang­ing in the cor­ner and the un­fin­ished paint­ings lean­ing in on each other. Above the fire­place, a glass of red at half-mast, a salute to the night be­fore. To any­one else it might have been clut­ter or a ri­otous mess. To me it was home, a place where things were made and in­vented in the raw rather than bought new. A kitchen where there was al­ways a fish straight from the sea wrapped in news­pa­per. A din­ing ta­ble sur­rounded by loud, opin­ion­ated thinkers. Ideas ut­tered like prophe­cies, advice thrown around like sea salt, mu­sic, laugh­ter and some­times tears. And that’s what it’s like to be the child of an artist. No sin­gle day was ever the same. In my case two artists, both Mum and Dad. But my fa­ther was dom­i­nant like the sun, a he­lio­cen­tric force, who al­ways re­turned to the cir­cle whether it was his fa­mous paella pan sur­rounded by a swarm of drop-ins or the burn­ing ball of cad­mium yel­low he so of­ten placed in the belly of his paint­ings.

John Olsen. A throw­away line by many – that he is Australia’s an­swer to Pi­casso or hailed sen­ti­men­tally as a na­tional liv­ing

trea­sure – to my sis­ter Louise and I he was a teacher be­fore we knew we were be­ing taught any­thing. For John, the line be­tween art and life was rarely bro­ken. For my mother, Va­lerie, paint­ing was a sa­cred sanc­tu­ary, a place to qui­etly re­turn to the soul. It’s funny to think of how our par­ents fret­ted about our fu­tures. “What will be­come of them with such a bo­hemian up­bring­ing?” was the fa­mil­iar re­frain. And per­haps we were even­tu­ally sent to pri­vate schools as a bit of last-minute in­sur­ance, a com­pen­sa­tion for the years liv­ing as vagabonds, criss­cross­ing Spain, Por­tu­gal and France, or the odd mo­ments sit­ting on the pub steps, ei­ther wait­ing for the fish­er­man to sell their morn­ing haul or at clos­ing time wait­ing for the party to end.

It was a child­hood that mixed earthy plea­sures with worldly com­pany as it seemed that ev­ery­one who came to our kitchen ta­ble – Mar­garet Ol­ley, Ger­maine Greer, Rus­sell Drys­dale, Don­ald Friend, Barry Humphries, Sid­ney Nolan – made my sis­ter and I un­know­ing wit­nesses to a dy­namic cul­ture un­fold­ing. The value of paint­ing was a cru­cible undis­puted in our house, mak­ing my child­hood rich in two as­sets: art and mem­ory. Money might be in­her­ited but I think cre­ativ­ity is bred and with it comes an even greater sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Un­know­ingly, us kids got an un­likely work ethic from watch­ing our par­ents stick­ing at the art through feast and famine and I think that con­trib­uted greatly to Louise’s in­de­pen­dence and suc­cess as a de­signer (for her com­pany Di­nosaur De­signs) and my even­tual tenac­ity as a dealer. The un­spo­ken credo in our house was that any­thing was al­lowed ex­cept medi­ocrity. You can’t throw in the brush!

Ac­cord­ing to my par­ents I was con­ceived at the Na­tional Art School in Dar­linghurst in Sydney, and I showed a flair for paint­ing early. At the age of three, I crept into my fa­ther’s stu­dio unseen one morn­ing and “con­trib­uted” to a large paint­ing he was work­ing on at the time. At break­fast there was an up­roar: “He’s bug­gered the paint­ing!” John thun­dered to my mother. Then, later in the day at a pre-dusk mo­ment he chris­tened “chardon­nay time”, a sec­ond glass of wine was con­sumed. This time he called out: “The kid’s a bloody ge­nius!” The paint­ing, En­trance to the Sea­port of De­sire, now hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and my hand is still in there some­where. As a young man I had the temer­ity to study to be an artist and the wis­dom to not be­come one. Seven years of art school taught me some­thing, but watch­ing Dad and liv­ing through every art­work on a highly per­sonal level taught me more. See­ing Span­ish En­counter hang­ing in a mu­seum is like look­ing at an old photo al­bum, but the mem­o­ries are coded in paint.

It is a rare priv­i­lege to grow from in­fancy to ma­tu­rity within a vast body of work. In many ways, John’s paint­ings have the abil­ity to dis­tort and play with time. The joy­ful im­me­di­acy of his mark con­ceals the grav­i­tas that forms the bedrock of six decades of paint­ing. As his fa­mously dark self-por­trait, Self por­trait Janus Faced, at­tests, my fa­ther has two very dis­tinct per­sonas. The first is the pub­lic iden­tity: the gre­gar­i­ous host, the bon vi­vant fling­ing saf­fron, bon mots and rare pig­ment into the void, the Zen cal­lig­ra­pher in­vent­ing his own fre­netic lex­i­con of line. Less known is the in­tro­vert. The man work­ing in com­plete clois­tered si­lence. Deep in doubt be­fore an un­fin­ished paint­ing. Re­flect­ing the day in his ram­bling art jour­nal. Alone in the bush or a pri­vate thought. Sealed by a closed stu­dio door. There is no doubt as to the hi­er­ar­chy held by an ob­ses­sive and pro­lific painter. First came


art, then your woman and then your chil­dren. We were taught from an early age that it was the things that could not be seen that man­i­fested most pow­er­fully: “If you haven’t got the feel­ing right,” John ad­mon­ished, “just for­get it.”

And it’s prob­a­bly that de­cep­tively di­rect ap­proach that has seen Dad sim­pli­fied in some crit­i­cal and art his­toric cir­cles. His lin­eage as a painter shoots an arrow through half a cen­tury of Modernism, his com­po­si­tional ex­per­i­men­ta­tion lit­er­ally turned Aus­tralian land­scape up­side down and he mas­tered many medi­ums within a vast body of work: etch­ing, ce­ram­ics, cal­lig­ra­phy (his own!), wa­ter­colour and oil. I like to think he chal­lenged him­self de­spite his suc­cess and not be­cause of it. And that was an­other crit­i­cal gift of liv­ing so closely within the or­bit of an art star: good artists al­ways leave room for doubt. The fal­low mo­ment. The dark night. “The bil­l­abong pe­riod” as he called it many times. God knows he has had his de­trac­tors; many times within my fa­ther’s ca­reer his work passed in and out of fash­ion. With honour and ac­knowl­edge­ment came the chang­ing and fickle tastes of new gen­er­a­tions. I am baf­fled by the con­cep­tual or “post-post mod­ern” artists who are not gen­er­ous to him. There is more raw ex­per­i­ment in his process than in en­tire mu­seum wings and his work has a strong (if lit­tle known) per­for­ma­tive streak. These are in­tensely phys­i­cal paint­ings full of un­mapped ges­tures and un­planned out­bursts. In­ten­sity is some­thing he has sus­tained over time. Sim­ply stay­ing a painter in the stream of con­tem­po­rary whims and hon­ing his lan­guage out­side of trends, to my eye, is rare in it­self. He carved the path but he also stayed the course.

This morn­ing Dad sent me a photo. Beret on head, hand on brush, fre­netic en­er­gised lines leap­ing onto the can­vas. It was prob­a­bly taken while the world was still sleep­ing, long be­fore break­fast. They say Cézanne died paint­ing but he prob­a­bly didn’t see it like that. He lived paint­ing and the line be­tween art and life wasn’t drawn. The gifts an artist leaves his chil­dren are al­ways mea­sured in gold frames. I sup­pose peo­ple look at the heirs to Henri Matisse or Lu­cian Freud as liv­ing with price­less arte­facts. As a gal­lerist I have the strange du­al­ity of know­ing the mar­ket value of a work of art and the spir­i­tual value of liv­ing with some­thing rare and orig­i­nal. What I tell young col­lec­tors every day is to look at their mo­ti­va­tion in in­vest­ing in a work of art. It has to be emo­tional: art for me is not real es­tate. I walk past John’s ma­jor work Lake Hind­marsh every day, breath­ing in the dor­mant majesty and emo­tional solem­nity of this big moody brown can­vas. I see its place in art his­tory as a ma­jor work, pos­si­bly a mis­un­der­stood work, but more strongly this paint­ing glow­ers with mem­ory. Just as some tribes live with an­ces­tral tal­is­mans, I am sur­rounded by the power of fam­ily. John al­ways said: “In life, there are lovers and there are oth­ers, and you know what you can do with the oth­ers!” Long live the lovers. John Olsen: The You Beaut Coun­try opens Septem­ber 16 at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria be­fore open­ing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales next March. Go to

En­trance to the Sea­port of De­sire (1964).

Self por­trait Janus Faced (2005). John Olsen paint­ing Summer in the You Beaut Coun­try (1962).

Sydney sun [King sun] (1965).

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