John Olsen

In Artist Profile 55, Pippa Mott explored the darker, more reflective and reflexive aspects of John Olsen's practice. Ahead of Ngununggula's exhibition of "Goya's Dog," which includes many of the works Mott is interested in, we share her discoveries, including insights from her conversation with Olsen.

In what he has previously described as a “cutting of the umbilical cord,” the young Australian painter John Olsen travelled to Europe in 1956, setting in motion a cascade of experiences that would significantly shape his world view and trajectory as an artist, none more so than his experiences in Spain.

It was at the Prado Museum that John Olsen first encountered the work of Francisco Goya – most significantly the Disasters of War, 1810-20, and Black Paintings, 1819-23, series. The former is a series of eighty-two etchings produced between 1810 and 1820 that bear witness to the atrocities and depravities of war – a quiet but gruesome visual protest, and a narrative of the Spanish struggle for independence against France. Olsen was, of course, experiencing these works within the context of a country still reeling from the aftermath of a vicious war. As Olsen recalls, “Spain was recovering from the worst war that any country can have, which is a civil war. Think of Syria. What happened to Spain was just the same thing. It was very poor. When I first went to Barcelona, there were still ruined buildings with walls punctuated by the pock marks of bullets and artillery.”

The Black Paintings, likely painted between 1819 and 1823, are much more ambiguous. Immeasurably powerful, they are imbued with a wicked, muddy magic. The paintings originally adorned the walls of Goya’s home on the outskirts of Madrid. Never truly intended for an audience and painted at a time when he had lost almost all of his hearing, they are some of the most compelling scenes ever conjured by Goya. In keeping with the manner of their creation, viewing them feels somewhat voyeuristic. Many will be familiar with the gruesome image of Saturn Devouring His Son, c.1819-23, but it was The Dog, c.1819-23, that truly lodged itself in Olsen’s mind. “It’s a picture in which the dog’s head points to an emptiness, a void. It’s asking questions. It’s a remarkable picture.” This painting revealed to Olsen the “richness of emptiness,” a concept he would later connect with Taoist philosophy. In the work of Goya, Olsen also came to appreciate the power of tone, and its “soulful reverberations” – something that would continue to anchor Olsen’s palette throughout his career.

In the wake of his travels, Olsen “really began to see that whilst we Australians always like the sunny side of the street, the Spanish are deeply informed by the shadows.” The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote on the concept of duende – a mysterious expressive force that saturates Spanish culture from flamenco through to bullfighting. “Seeking the duende,” he writes in the lecture text Theory and Play of the Duende, “there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks.” Olsen recognised that there was a formidable power to be harnessed through duende. So, whilst Olsen returned to Australia fully appreciating its optimistic spirit, he internalised a sense of dualism, which empowered him to work with great emotional range. One of the most significant works completed in the aftermath of this experience was Spanish encounter, 1960. At the monumental scale of nine by six feet, the triptych was imbued with what Olsen describes as “a kind of energy, a pulse. It just completely knocked the socks off Sydney – they hadn’t seen anything like it at the time.” The painting maps with calligraphic abstraction the journey of the artist through his ebullient hometown of Sydney, interwoven with memories of European sojourns. In a 1961 issue of The Bulletin, John explains his approach to the painting as one of curiosity, instinct and openness to chance: “If I were Mondrian I would say forget about the journey, just draw a straight line, but forgetting such admonitions, let’s begin a simple adventure, and see what might happen.” Brimming with turbulence and vitality, it could be mistaken for the antithesis of the “emptiness” that Olsen found solace in. Yet, Olsen clarifies this paradox; “Emptiness and fullness, in the terms of the famous book called the Tao, are essentially the same thing.”

Spanish encounter will be included in an upcoming exhibition at the National Art School, Goya’s Dog, alongside over sixty-five major works from the 1950s to the 1990s and recently completed, never-before-seen paintings. Drawn from a vast range of public and private collections across Australia, Olsen excitedly explains that “it has been a chance to connect with works that I haven’t seen for forty years.” The exhibition captures the exuberance and beauty that Olsen is so well known for, but also shows the more meditative, existentialist side of his oeuvre. Kylie Norton, Olsen’s editor, and an instrumental contributor to the research and development of the exhibition, jokes that there will be “not a frog in sight.”

The exhibition was developed over three years, but its genesis came from a conversation between the late William Wright (1937-2014) and Olsen over a decade ago that centred on the darkness and introspection that periodically characterised Olsen’s work. The exhibition charts moments of liberation and sorrow, confidence and crises, ecstasy and inward retreat, and always a constellation of interchanging and intersecting influences. The impact of the gloom and physical ruin of post-war Spain on Olsen’s palette and mark-making is overwhelmingly clear in such works as Initiation No. 2, 1956, Untitled #7, 1957, and Landscape mediterranean, 1957, and Spanish landscape,1959. In January 14, 1960, and later Goya’s dog, life escaping a void, 1985, murky soulful tonality and the power and presence of the void are an elegant ode to Goya. Le soleil, 1965, an extraordinary ceiling work, explodes with brilliant optimism, artfully inducing a “chin-up” in gesture and disposition. A later work, The bay and the tidal pool, 1979, provides an exquisite counterpoint, employing the archetypal ovoid format to capture the otherworldliness of the marine environment. As described by Olsen’s biographer Deborah Hart in her doctoral thesis, the work epitomises his “explorations in fullness and emptiness, dynamism and restraint.”

With the early, darker works conceptually bookended by a series of self-portraits and a selection of works from the Letters to a Young Artist series, the exhibition seems to pulse with not only autobiographical and existential musings, but also very self-consciously reflects in the broader sense on what it means to be an artist. Donde voy? Self-portraits in moments of doubt, 1989, is a sombre, brooding work that was created at a time of “breakdown of marriage and disappointment.” The artist’s directionlessness translated to a loose and edgy style, but also perhaps freed him to challenge traditional notions of portraiture and present a distinctly vulnerable and personal image. Physical semblance is rejected in favour of feeling and this painting is a raw depiction of disillusion. The Letters were a series of portraits of older artists produced by Olsen in the late 80s during a financially and romantically tempestuous junction in the artist’s life. Each work is imbued with a musing, a reflection, or a warning – whether inscribed or implied via (often grisly) caricature. Many of these seem preoccupied with the figure of the ageing artist – their legacy, philosophy, and the experience of gradual physical decline.

Olsen ruminates that “the advantage of being older is a longer telescope of time. What you’re able to do is to reflect, deeply reflect, on the path and its relevance to the future. Barring Alzheimer’s, old age is a good thing. Yeats had something to say about it … ‘young, we were innocent, in old age, we became wise’.” When questioned about the role of the artist, Olsen opines that “I think the really important thing is the fundamental mark. If there were a holocaust and man were reduced to extinction, the last thing that would probably be left would be a mark on a wall.”

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 55, 2021. 
Images courtesy the artist, Olsen Gallery, Sydney, National Art School, Sydney, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

John Olsen: Goya’s Dog
26 March – 15 May 2022
Ngununggula, New South Wales

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