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John Olsen: You Beaut Country exhibition opens at the Art Gallery NSW

ABC (Image: ABC News: Clarissa Thorpe) 9 Mar 2017

On Focus with Wendy Harmer

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John Olsen: You Beaut Country exhibition opens at the Art Gallery NSW

On Focus with Wendy Harmer

Introduction: John Olsen is one of Australia's greatest artists, with works across multiple mediums produced over nearly seven decades.

The John Olsen: You Beaut Country exhibition features some of his most iconic and arresting works, including large-scale paintings of Sydney Harbour and Lake Eyre as well as his career-defining landscape series.

He spoke with Wendy Harmer about his excitement for this exhibition and his journey as an artist. From being an 'outrageous' younger man, to his quest for perfection and how his best is yet to come.

Duration: 14min 13sec

Broadcast: Thu 9 Mar 2017, 8:30am




There is a beautiful beautiful book about the artwork of John Olsen and it's called the "You Beaut Country". In it his son, Tim Olsen, writes a very beautiful essay about his father, John Olsen and it is absolutely beautiful. To have a child write such a thing about you.  

"Everything my father touches is full of passion, intensity, truth and curiosity. The child is always alive. All my life he's been watching, absorbing and doing much more than just taking notes. So often he has been known by his motto, ‘I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me.' That line, over time, became indivisible with his artistic identity and in the process he changed the face of how we see this terrain.

He changed the very essence of what modern landscape painting is by shrinking the sky, turning his back on conventional geometry, speaking his own language and always returning to the egg-yolk magnetic energy of the sun."

What a beautiful way to end that essay I must say. John Olsen, an incredibly diverse body of work spanning seven decades, one of Australia's greatest living artists, gallery regulars would know his works well. Others may have come across his work, a few pieces here and there, including his "Salute to Five Bells", the mural in the foyer of the Concert Hall of the Opera House. If you would like to know more about John and to familiarise yourself with most iconic works, paintings, drawings, tapestries, ceramics and more, well here is your chance. The most comprehensive John Olsen display mounted opens tomorrow at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and he joins me now.

Wendy: Good morning to you Sir.

John: Good morning to you and welcome to the you beaut country.

Wendy: Well hearing you there John, as your son says, you've still got that inner child working for you, I must say. The "You Beaut Country" where did that phrase come from and what does it mean to you?

John: Well, when I came back from Spain, Spain was just really recovering from the civil war. A civil war is the worse war you can possibly have and so when I came back to Australia everything seemed so optimistic, so full of possibility. There is a colloquialism that an ice cream can be beaut. A beautiful girl, she's not beautiful, she's beaut. So it is kind of a world of imagination, it is called the you beaut country, it's how you feel about things, central to everything: how to you feel. Just ask yourself that question, aside from anything, how do you feel. How we feel is central to our being.

Wendy: You are very excited about this exhibition I believe and why is it such a joy to you, this one?

John: Well, when you are first asked to an exclusive dinner party and you become so excited because it really spans fifty years work. And then in retrospect, in introspection, you say but supposing I fail. Wow. Well I haven't failed. It's very exciting and it's beautifully hung on different coloured walls and for me there's an extraordinary thing that happens. It's that I can see the linkage, right from the beginning, when I am 18 and then winding through the gallery, here I am, 89 and there is a connection. It's very mysterious, from work to work. I don't think of that. I think, well I started with this idea, and I'll do something about it.

Wendy: Are you kind to yourself when you look back John? A lot of people look back at their earlier novels, their movies, and think "oh good grief. I didn't know anything, it's terrible."  What do you think about your younger self?

John: Well he's a spunky kid. He's a cheeky kid and he is kind of outrageous, but... they are not bad. He's exercising his little [inaudible]. They are OK. The worst thing a creative person can have is the idea of perfection because your idea of perfection is different from say, Picasso's idea of perfection. We all have a criteria and you've got, we call it, follow your dream. If people only had the conscious to follow their instinctual self, a different result come out. It's having faith in oneself. I can only see a little spec of blue we call a sky but by god I'll go for that spec of blue.

Wendy: Do you look back and go, do you see a particular time in your life, in your career, when you were really blossoming. Was there a sort of a peak there for you?

John: There are a couple of pictures that contain that. One which is called "Sydney Sun". It's full of that, what I recognise that bouncy, day of life, vital things that Sydney has. The harbour, the sunshine, the optimism again. You know, that's Sydney. Now Melbourne is very good, but it doesn't have that Sydney bounce.

Wendy: And where are you living these days John?

John: I live in the Southern Highlands

Wendy: And you are still working away?

John: That's breathing.

Wendy: And I didn't know you'd worked in ceramics and tapestries. So we are going to see the full range of your mediums here?

John: Oh yes. That's very exciting. I first of all began doing tapestries in 1963 and I was the first Australian to really do so because there had been a great revolution in tapestries with new dyes and new colours and there is a tapestry in this exhibition from 1963 called "Joie de vivre". It look good! Of couse artists have great self-esteem.

Wendy: I love to hear you say you look at your work and you think it's good because I know so many people who do the opposite. They look and say, I've probably heard this said by a lot of artist too John, "I don't think I've done my best work yet". What do you think about that? Have you?

John: No No No. No. You see, excuse me for saying that so many times. The fact is a new day is a new day. It's a spiritual thing. It's a life energy thing. And how lucky am I that I still have my marbles, I think.

Wendy: Well it sounds like you've got them to me. When you look at this beautiful landscape that you have loved, loved for so long John and you've been painting it for all these years. What do you think about the future of the Australian landscape?

John: It will look after itself.

Wendy: Are we in the way?

John: Well Wendy, I really, it's a silly notion but  when I see dead mining cavaties in the Kimberley and when I see Alluvial mining in the Hunter Valley it's really awful. It's a scar. I understand fully that economics are economics but I think it is really an awful thing. It's a wound.

You say that to be an Australian artist is to be an explorer. So I guess this country for you has just unfolded over all these years. Is there anywhere that you perhaps haven't been to yet that you would like to visit. And perhaps you could tell me about one of your favourite places to go.

John: I've been everywhere man. I've been to Darwin, to Central Australia, to tropical Australia, to Tasmania. I've been to Antarctica, I mean, I've been everywhere man.

Wendy: And your son, Tim, he wrote this lovely essay, that he went up with you on a trip to Lake Eyre, on an aerial journey and he probably saw that land with that eye, that you have. You love to see things from above. As the indigenous people paint it as well.

John: Well, of course, that's correct. Because Australia is such a huge continent and the only way to get its proper detail is the overview. It's the overview that gives the proper scale of the landscape. The beginning of that overview was Sydney Nolan's Central Australian picture of 1948 when he hitched a ride on a mail plane. There he could see it was the McDonald Ranges and there he could see the scarring of the landscape and how it reveals its age. When he took those picture to London, they said this is not landscape this is paintings of the moon. Can you believe? So it is that kind of thing, like to be just on the ground which I'm not of course denegrating but to just get that slightly higher level that you get more of the incredible scale of the incredible landscape.

Wendy: Well John Olsen. A towering achievement. I can't wait to just get along and see it all together there and just linger. I'm just looking here at the preface here in the book, You Beaut Country and you were quoted here by the honourable Paul Keating who was then Prime Minister at an official awards ceremony and you said, "There are lovers, and there are others and I don't much care for the other." And it says here that Olsen is a lover of many things, is a lover of people, of food (particularly of Spanish cooking), he is a lover of literature, a lover of the natural world, but above all, Olsen is a lover of art and a lover of life. And thank you for everything that you have given us and I can't wait for us to get along.

John: Thank you Wendy.

Wendy: I was lovely to speak with you.

John: Good bye.

Wendy: This exhibition opens tomorrow at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It comes from the Gallery of Victoria. So WOW, tell you what. Beautiful beautiful stuff. And what a pleasure to speak with John Olsen there, the esteemed Australian artist.


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