John Olsen

John Olsen (1928-2023)


"There are in our existence spots of time
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired."

 - William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book XII


Remembering is an activity of mind that pictures the past – and reminds us that what we picture is the past. How would it be if we did not possess the capacity to image the past – and thus remember? Is it possible to imagine a mind constructed without this ability? How very different its experience of the world would be. Among things lost would be those ‘spots of time’ pleasurably associated with the past and representing friendships, admiration, respect and the general ‘education of the soul’. The mental activity called‘ recollection’ is loathe to let such moments escape – and the imagination weaves around them a net of thoughts and images which regularly come to mind. How can the process of relaying memories to other minds by means of concrete words and images work? How does the artist or writer conjure up the right forms and capture the necessary nuances? How can experiences of inner mind be transferred into the public domain of art and literature? As a beginning, the precious ‘spot of time’ is associated with people, places, moods, sensations and ideas. Recurrent recollections have an uncanny tendency to develop their own reality – a surreality wherein words, images, ideas, objects and their contextual associations become inexorably linked, as they are in Olsen’s paintings and drawings where a lily pond can be seen as synonymous with a whole universe of biological creation and the paella-pan, or dining table, transformed into a welcoming landscape inviting conviviality among family and friends.


So it is that people, objects, places, contexts, colours and emotions trigger recollections and serve as symbols for those ‘spots of time’ which remain stored as fragments in the mind. Like archaeological sherds in a glass cabinet, they can be revisited and re-assembled. Insubstantial and non-experiential as a recollection is, it is frequently accompanied by a need to describe or picture it – to find a form that fits the gesture, tone or idea that lingers in the memory. Such ‘spots of time’ have proved of great importance to Olsen’s creative life. In 2007 we find him returning to childhood memories of popping blue bottles on Bondi beach. His drawings frequently present sea creatures laid out on the table for inspection and inspiration. Such table-scapes are irresistible to Olsen’s cats, those frequently drawn companions that inhabit his drawings from way back in the Victoria Sheet days until now. Olsen’s diaries, rich as they are in anecdotes, observations and recollections, confirm the importance of memories in achieving the ‘all-at-onceness’ of his vision. In July 1994 he was reflecting on theKimberley which provided him with some of his most memorable images: ‘TheKimberley has a flavour about it where everything becomes magic, a sense of surreality where things appear larger than they really are. It is a place for painters, poets and musicians. Everyday I see something that seems entirely new– to be seen in a different way – individual objects are more firmly silhouetted. I shall return today to a decade when I was in the Kimberley with the Duttons, dear Mary Durack, Vin and Carol Serventy and of course Alex Bortignon. It’s the wet and I see a bird, red-capped with huge feet that can walk on lily pads, and popularly known as the Christ-bird. Lily-trotters are more properly called jacanas. Tree frogs have pads on their hands and toes so that they can miraculously hang on wet leaves. There are spoonbills with their beaks going backwards and forwards dredging the rich porridge from the water’s bottom and sheets of drenching rain.’


Other memories relate to his teachers. Olsen remembers how Godfrey Miller would make little sketches during life-classes – first warming the paper by the radiator. His classes were serious, silent, interrupted only by the sound of paper being torn or the scraping of palette knives. Here the memories include an auditory dimension. After reading Seamus Heaney, Olsen made a note in his diary of Eliot’s theory of the ‘auditory imagination’: ‘The feeling for syllable and rhythm penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word, sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, fusing “the most ancient and the most civilised society”. Rembrandt’s tones do that, they send us right back to cave paintings, they reverberate against the ancient soul. ‘ The beginning of everything.’ While, as the drawings in his exhibition indicate, Olsen is prompted by the sensations and delights of each day, he also remembers the long dark shadows of early morning, black birds scudding over wet grass, shadows of crows on the trees and an old dog chewing a juicy bone over the same wet grass.His memories, like his paintings and drawings, reverberate with the Ying and Yang of a long and creative life in which his imagery captures those moments that live on through the richness and vivacity of his art. Olsen has declared: ‘You have to be a certain age to look at the past … I’m looking towards an uncertain future, but I’ll travel with it!’And that he does with characteristic wisdom, generosity, optimism and boundless creativity. Olsen won the Wynne Prize in 1969 and 1985, the Sulman Prize in 1989 and the Archibald Prize in 2005, among many other awards throughout his long career. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1977 and an Order of Australia in 2001. 


Selected Solo Exhibitions


John Olsen: Journey’s Into the ‘You Beaut Country’, MetroGallery, Melbourne

John Olsen, Olsen Irwin, Sydney

John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


John Olsen: Landscapes and Life, Metro Gallery, Melbourne

Destination Sydney, Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney

Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane


Myself and other Animals, Metro Gallery, Melbourne


John Olsen: New Work, Olsen Irwin, Sydney


John Olsen: An Exhibition of New Work, Osborne Samuel,London in conjunction with Olsen Irwin, Sydney


Lake Eyre: The Desert Sea. Metro Gallery, Melbourne


John Olsen, Lake Eyre – The Desert Sea, Ruminations on an empty landscape, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney

John Olsen, Lake Eyre – The Desert Sea, Ruminations on an empty landscape, Tim Olsen Gallery at the Hong Kong Art Fair


John Olsen,Culinaria; The Cuisine of the Sun, Tim Olsen Gallery

John Olsen: Opening the Olsen Hotel, Metro Gallery, Melbourne


Olsen: Paintings & Drawings, Metro Gallery, Melbourne


John Olsen, A Salute to Sydney, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney


The Coorong: Unfinished Journey, Metro 5 Gallery, Melbourne

Selected works, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney

John Olsen: His Complete Graphics, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney

John Olsen, Selection of Graphics, Eastgate and Holst Gallery, Melbourne


The Flight to Broome, Tim Olsen Gallery Annex, Sydney.

Pulse, Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Victoria

Teeming with Life, His Complete Graphics 1957-2005, Book launch and exhibition of selected etchings, Cosa Gallery, London

The Coorong Suite, New Releases, Print Survey. Port JacksonPress Gallery, Melbourne

A selection of recent etchings by John Olsen, Impressions onPaper Gallery, Canberra


John Olsen, Recent Works, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney


John Olsen, Metro 5 Gallery, Melbourne

Sydney Harbour, Seaport of Desire, a survey of prints and drawings, Port Jackson Press, Melbourne


Seaport of Desire, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney


Recent works on paper, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney


John Olsen: Past & Present, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney


John Olsen: Recent Paintings

1995 - 1998, Olsen Carr ArtDealers, Sydney

'New York Nowhere', recent paintings and works on paper, Olsen Carr Art Dealers, Sydney


John Olsen: Recent Works, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane


John Olsen: Recent Work 1992-1994, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne


John Olsen: Recent Works, Sherman Galleries Goodhope, Sydney

John Olsen: Recent Etchings, Olsen Carr Art Dealers, Sydney


John Olsen Retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales

John Olsen Retrospective, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


John Olsen, Australian Galleries, Melbourne


John Olsen, Australian Galleries, Sydney


John Olsen, Greenhill Gallery, Perth

The Land Beyond Time, works from the Christensen Fund Collection, touring exhibition Manly Art Gallery, Sydney; Nolan Gallery,Canberra; The Centre Gallery, Gold Coast


John Olsen - Encounters with Drawing, Australian Galleries, Melbourne


John Olsen - Encounters with Drawing, Wollongong City Gallery


Paintings and Drawings by John Olsen from the permanent collection, John Olsen - In Search of the Open Country 1961-1986, Heide, Melbourne

John Olsen: Gold, Art Gallery of New South Wales, SydneyJohn Olsen, Australian Galleries, Melbourne


John Olsen, Tynte Gallery, Adelaide


John Olsen, Tynte Gallery, Adelaide Festival, Adelaide


John Olsen: Selected Graphics, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth John Olsen - The Land Beyond Time, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth


John Olsen 81-82 and Noela Hjorth, Bortignon's Kalamunda Gallery of Man, John Olsen, Australian Galleries, Melbourne


John Olsen: A Sliver of Time, Barry Stern Galleries, Sydney


John Olsen: Exhibition of Recent Paintings, AustralianGalleries, Melbourne

John Olsen: Paintings and Drawings


Lister Gallery, Festival of Perth, Perth

John Olsen: My Complete Graphics, David Reid Gallery, Sydney


John Olsen: Earth Hold etchings, Cintra House, Brisbane


John Olsen: Paintings and Drawings 77-78, Barry SternGalleries, Sydney


John Olsen: Recent Paintings, Australian Galleries, Melbourne


John Olsen: Recent oil paintings, gouaches, drawings and etchings, Ray The Child in us All, St John's Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane


John Olsen: Edge of the Void, Rudy Komon Gallery, SydneyJohn Olsen 74-75: Edge of the Void and Opera House Mural Studies, AustralianEdge of the Void: Paintings, Drawings, Etchings and Lithographs by John Olsen, Greenhill Galleries, Adelaide

John Olsen: Etchings, Gallery Huntly, Canberra 1974 JohnOlsen, Atelier 72 Gallery, Adelaide


John Olsen, Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney


John Olsen, Australian Galleries, Melbourne


John Olsen, Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney


John Olsen, Reid Gallery, Brisbane


The Dunmoochin Summer: John Olsen '69, Rudy Komon Gallery,Sydney

John Olsen '69- Exhibition of Gouches and Oil Paintings,White Studio, Adelaide


Entrance to the Castle of Life: John Olsen 66-67, Clune Galleries, Sydney

Entrance to the Castle of Life: John Olsen 66-67, South Yarra Gallery, Melbourne


John Olsen, Clune Galleries, Sydney

John Olsen, South Yarra Gallery, Melbourne


An Exhibition of Recent Paintings, Gouaches & Drawings by John Olsen, John Olsen: Recent Paintings, Australian Galleries, Melbourne


Olsen, Galerie Lambert, Paris John Olsen, Terry Clune Galleries, Sydney


John Olsen, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney


John Olsen, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney

Awards and Recognition


Order of Australia


Winner: Archibald Prize


Winner: The Sulman Prize


Winner: The Wynne Prize


Order of the British Empire


Winner The Wynne Prize



All Australian state gallery collections

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Olsen’s work can be seen in both regional galleries Australia wide and in many institutional, corporate and private collections in Australasia, United Kingdom, Europe and the United States of America

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