John Olsen

In his ninth decade, John Olsen’s legendary lust for life is as obvious as ever and so is his devotion to drawing, a practice that has underpinned his long and distinguished career. What is also evident when talking with Olsen is that his diverse life experiences have informed his approach to art. Memories of tough times during the Depression in the late 1920s, creative battles of a life spent dedicated to art, and the many wonderful people who have shared his world and great places he has visited are all deeply intertwined through his work. He is still looking outward, projecting what he sees and more importantly celebrating life - just as he did as a young boy growing up in Newcastle, discovering a passion for drawing.

Your works have a questioning quality to them, more than posing answers. Does good mark making come from instinct and intuition rather than control and knowledge?
I’d begin by saying the most important thing, and I am speaking specifically of the figure because I think it’s the best thing to study from, not only because it’s familiar to ourselves but it also has multiple changes of movement and expression. The primary thing which I used to do in my Bakery School drawing classes was to begin doing quick-pose drawings, because you’ve got to get to the essence of movement. But mark making is more than that. As you go on with the quick poses, things come out that normally wouldn’t come out if you’re doing a proper drawing. I used to say to them, don’t worry about ‘eyesy, nosey, mouthy’ or whether things precisely look like a leg. Get the motivation and the essence of the movement and it’s surprising that after they work like that for a while, they begin to see possibilities, rather than just illustrations, and they arrive at their own kind of figuration. Curiously enough, it’s creative.

So, from the start, rather than beginning with formal construction like many art schools have done and still do, unless what you do is based on your own experience rather than a theory drawing, you’re essentially not getting anywhere. The idea of art is to get into the taproot of what you are. So there’s that kind of challenge of not being too fixed because I wanted students to somehow come in contact with themselves. I never really worried about whether it was a figure as long as it somehow had dynamic marks about it. Like Chinese and Japanese calligraphy—I can admire it and not essentially know what it means but I think, geez, this is bloody marvellous.

These methods at the Bakery School, were they derived from past experiences with teachers or did you come up with them yourself, as an alternative to what was on offer at the time?
It was an accumulation of ideas—I did some summer schools with Oscar Kokoschka in the1950s and it was very much that kind of thing. I also did classes in the Grande Chaumiere in Montparnasse. The question being that at the Bakery on Saturday mornings, I had children in the class and there was a kid about 6 years old and I said to this kid ‘what’s this?’ and he said ‘I’m drawing my think’. Which is exactly what I’m always trying to do myself. But at no point is that sufficient because students have also got to come to grips with what the figure is constructed from. So, I didn’t deny the factor of analysis—like, how is this thing made? I’ve never really done an abstract painting because it’s always related to my experience or the experience of things.

Was it a long process to discover exactly what you were about or getting to that ‘taproot’ or inner essence?
I haven’t really found it (laughs). Sometimes I crawl out of the mouse hole, it’s just like curiosity in that the wonderful thing of an artist’s life as I know it—is it’s endless. It’s such a wonderful thing the journey, because art is such a big stew pot and if you put a spoon in there’s bound to be something there for you. Once you have this kind of attitude you’ve allowed yourself to be eternally a student. Because it isn’t about knowhow necessarily. You’ve got to have the correlation between the way you think and essentially how you feel. Art is mostly instinct.

You talk about being artless or distrusting purposeful thinking. Was that something you learnt when living in the Mediterranean? Wasn’t there a fellow called Walter who taught you about living simply and the notion of ‘wabi’?
Yes indeed, I became very interested in Zen well before it became popular and a wonderful man Walter Auerbach, who knew De Kooning and Pollock, introduced me to zen and the notion of wabi. I was also reading books by DT Suzuki on art which had to do with an appreciation of the old and discarded and also the book ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’. The aim being that art is not about hitting the target but hitting yourself. That’s what I mean when I’m talking about this drawing thing. It’s not to be forgotten that drawing is the fastest way of establishing identity, which hasn’t changed since the Lascaux caves and the Aboriginal caves. It’s a primary form of communication and therefore it can never be old hat.

As the atom bomb finally annihilates all of mankind, I’m sure there’ll be a scratching somewhere on a wall that says ‘hooray’ or ‘fuck’! So this kind of thing of talking about computers and technology, I think it’s a great and another option to look at, but never forget the primary thing of mark making. It’ll be impossible to say that painting is dead, because it can never be dead.

Was it harder earlier on in your career as an Australian artist to find your personal vision? Did living in Europe for a time and coming back here affect your art?
These are all interesting questions in so far as one of the worst periods of modern Australia was the 1920s and ‘30s. We were completely isolated and they knew that something big was happening in Europe, be it Cézanne, Van Gogh, Cubism and so on. There were no examples of it in the museums in Australia. I mean, my old teacher John Passmore said we’ve heard about this Cezanne guy and a man called Gauguin, also there was a mad Dutch guy, Van Gogh. It was the tyranny of distance. Certainly that doesn’t happen now because the thing that really liberated us was the commercial aircraft. Now you’ll get young artists saying I’m going to New York tomorrow. Its hard to imagine that same kind of suffocating sense we lived in and it’s reflected in that kind of isolation of the 1930s—explained by the kind of food we ate. We are living in a much better society.

Your stories of not knowing what a red pepper was until you were in Spain, or an aubergine are funny, and possibly reflect Australia’s remoteness at that time.
I’d never seen them until I travelled. So, here we are, and it’s to be said, Australians are very fast learners, which is reflected in the kind of restaurants we now have here. There’s a Picasso show coming soon… there’s a show just about to open in Melbourne on Viennese artists. So, it’s different but what’s happened subsequently is this, now we do our thing and we’re not so motivated by overseas fashions and trends. That’s if your going to be sensible. In the case of art, most of what’s called avant garde here is mostly derivative, so it’s not avant garde. Australian art has always existed best in the middle ground -because, say, if we thought of Streeton or Roberts, McCubbin, Fred Williams, Hans Heysen, myself, we are always best when we are on the middle ground – because we can feel as though we can push in the right direction. The avant garde seems to be in crisis.

How do we get ourselves out of it?
Go to the McDonald Ranges and paint! There is something about being in the landscape that exhilarates me. There is the infusion of the atmosphere of that special place—when I’d go out with Fred Williams or Clifton Pugh we would make most of it up! Truly, we could be in a hilly part and Fred would just draw a straight line, it was amazing.

I also happen to think Australia offers a unique opportunity as we have a marvellous body of work of the Aboriginal’s fabulous art. There are limitations in Aboriginal art and one is that there is no light in it, there is no atmosphere—it’s a diagrammatic kind of art. In fact it’s a guide to find a sacred site in some cases or a depiction of a sacred animal.

The most amazing thing if you’re able to grasp it is that it wasn’t until the Heidelberg School of Streeton and Roberts that there was an attempt to portray Australian light. That’s incredible. The other thing that Nolan revealed was that, first of all, the landscape is asymmetrical and supremely fucking untidy. It’s like a dog’s hind leg. If one thinks of the elementary structures of poplars and oak trees and how the European landscape is so placed, the Australian landscape is quite to the contrary.

The other thing which is just magic, and this is all new, imagine—it’s best viewed from the air. That gives scale to it; a bigness to it all.

Nolan was the first artist to see it from above.
Yes, In 1948 he got on the mail train from Alice Springs and flew over the desert. Never been done before. Isn’t that terribly exciting? And this is what I think about for an Australian artist, the potentialities are still to be discovered. It’s not only the landscape itself but our relationship to it. There’s an extraordinary thing that happened to the history of Australian art. This happened because of the failure of the Burke and Wills expedition in 1865. There was a particular kind of faith and hope that there in the centre of Australia was a rich grazing land. The expedition took a day and a half to leave Melbourne. It was an immense expedition. Then of course, as a result of the complete disaster of it all, it just left the feeling that we didn’t want to know anything about Central Australia. It was a no mans land. The whole development of the country then happened on the coastal fringe. Australians then began to have this kind saucer-like existence where most of them live on the edges and they became bloody terrified of sliding back into the middle.

Once you venture into the desert you realise what a special place it is.
Well, we are coming to that my boy…I’ll just give you a time span. Burke’s and Wills 1865. The first artist to venture forth was when Hans Heysen—he went to the Flinders Ranges to have a look at the interior and produce those wonderful charcoal drawings. It wasn’t until 1942 that Nolan and Drysdale journeyed inland that they sensed there is a rhythm and a mystery out there, that we were all looking out to sea but maybe the interior is the big unconscious. That’s fascinating. So, there are these kind of psychic things that had never really been looked at. The Aborigines couldn’t really do it on a large scale because there wasn’t the means of transport, so all these are really the important sign posts of what’s happened in Australian art.

Do you think there’s a resurgence of interest in landscapes because of the way climate change is an important part of national debate?
I don’t really know. Look, let’s not forget this, to be interested in landscape is also to be interested in the earth. I mean, forever are we rooted to the landscape. Things are very fluid and undecided because the early part of the 20th century right up to perhaps 1968, modern art was looked at as perhaps a crusade. You were a warrior looking for this understanding of new art and new knowledge. My experience is that I don’t think that it has that anymore. It’s much more open and individual. But the quality of idealism is not there.

Is there something new that you still want to paint—that really interests you?
I’m finding its in Lake Eyre. It’s the lowest point below sea level in Australia and it’s there and it’s also not there. It’s vast, it’s that contradiction. When it rains in Queensland and in the Flinders Ranges it all drains down to Lake Eyre. You have got to see the size of it to realise it’s an inland sea. It’s the shape of the Salvador Dali bent watch. It’s got a lot going for it. At the moment the lake has thousand of pelicans, seagulls, cormorants; it’s full of fish. Lake Eyre is definitely unfinished business.

You once wrote: “If drawing is empathy, become the object, go into the centre of it. Art should concern itself with light. Modern art is crippled by concepts.”
[reading from one of his diary entries] Drawing is the shortest entrance to the key to the cave of memory. Memory as a paraded wish. Images that loll around in the mind expand in unveiling of self. One must learn to reconcile. Remember…drawing reveals the probity of marks. If the bow is properly pulled, a line will not only have a vitality of its own but will embrace the void of the paper. A line shall ask questions, push and pull me this way and that, time of course will complement it or contrast. A good drawing is the reconciliation, a bad drawing is a waste of it. The faster I run, the more I dance on the same pin head. This consistency is called by some,‘style’. There is a razor’s edge between something we see and adequately realising it. Comprehension, a love for Japanese and Chinese ideograms, whiplashes address the sensibilities, thick and thin, wet to dry, listen to the sound of the brush in action, drawing reveals the reverberation of itself against nature…

I remember reading about your teachers John Passmore and Godfrey Miller and how you admired Passmore’s work but as a person he was quite insular, and you learnt from that experience— that your whole life should be an important part of your art.
Both he and Godfrey Miller had disappointing lives. They enclosed themselves too much with the idea of perfection; perfection is a mental construction. The quest for perfection just leads to frustration. It’s best to be human, to have that sensibility to say ‘I feel and therefore I am’.

Passmore, who I loved very much, had great insights into painting and drawing. He made me feel that I was being introduced to something sacred. He, of course, was right. How necessary it is to love. He did not say that much. He said, “When you are walking in the street, Ollie, imagine that you are talking to Cézanne.” I tried that but I found the conversations awfully one-sided. “Be a student, get yourself to drawing and you shall continue.”

Though, Passmore was a misanthrope. He was very rude and cutting to his friends …’Dobell—hopeless’, ‘Drysdale—an illustrator’, ‘Nolan—a charlatan’, and so it went on. It was just awful. He would never show his work, ‘my work is my secret.’ He died in isolation and poverty, enforced by his passion not to sell his work; a state ward. He had scarcely a friend. I loved him more than any man but could not bare his cruelty.

How important has poetry and literature been to you?
Very important, because poetry is a case of the extended metaphor, that’s what I’m interested in. When I’m looking at a tree, for example, I’m not looking for the wood; I’m looking for how it explains itself to me. So poetry for me is a liberating thing. Poetry has given me so much. It’s so important to look at things and realise it is saying something more than just the tree, and if you have that kind of inclination you are bound to be doing interesting things…I think we are getting somewhere with this don’t you think?

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 16, 2011

John Olsen: Recent Works
11 December 2019 – 1 February 2020
OLSEN Gallery, Sydney

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