From the Archive

From the Archive

From The Archive

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Art And Memory: John Olsen's Recent Paintings | Christopher Leonard

Art and Memory: John Olsen's Recent Paintings

Art and Memory: John Olsen's Recent Paintings

Art and Australia, Volume 24, Number 3, 1987

One of the pioneers of non-figurative painting in Sydney, Olsen's abstraction was based on the European example rather than the American. The latest work emerges with a new confidence revealed in the balance between control and freedom he achieves unifying images with drawing, painting and surface.

As Marcel Proust had his childhood brought back by the taste of a small cake, a Madeleine, dipped in tilleul, Olsen has created his own Madeleine by his way of life: by his taste in food, his love of poetry, and by the strong and heady wines of Australia which resemble the deep buttery wines of Spain's Rioja region.

In 1956, when he was twenty-eight, John Olsen went to Europe under the aegis of a private sponsor who expressly forbade him to stay in England. After several lonely months in Paris where he studied with the printmaker Hayter, he was invited to visit some friends in Majorca. Spain was a shock to the senses:

'Unlike France, which seemed all air and atmosphere, this Spain was figured in an air of symbolism, the shadows, for example, were more distinct and fascinating than the actors who cast them. The yellow sand, the white village houses, the cart wheel in shadow revealed an intense atmosphere of surrealism. In an instant I could understand the Spanish tradition of Zurbaran, Velázquez, Goya, Dalí and Picasso. The Spanish lineage did not explain itself in floral tributes but in blacks, leather browns, burnt reds, blood-like crimsons, chamois candle whites. Nature turned in upon itself, yearning to find a soul, twisted, torn, worn like old patched trousers, discarded boots with holes in them'1

Olsen lived for the most part in Majorca not far from where Joan Miró had a studio and where he became a friend of the poet Robert Graves. Olsen returned to Australia in 1960 allowing this experience to permeate his work. He has returned to Spain several times, and in 1964 also went to Portugal to study tapestry.

Olsen says: 'There are two basic streams of European thought—one from south of the Rhine and the other north, as if there are people born under the sun and people born under a raincloud. North of the Rhine you get a morbid but passionate kind of expressionism as in Kokoschka and Ibsen, whereas those born under the sun see the divine—what else are Monet's waterlilies?'2 If this is the case, we may consider that Australia is a combination of these two elements: its European foundation being northern, but its climate southern. There we may have one of the dilemmas of the Australian arts, and it is this dilemma we find Olsen addressing especially since his days in Spain. For example, in the painting Entrance to the seaport of desire, 1964, we can see all the ebullience and colour of the south, and especially of Sydney.

Spain has been a signal experience that has left him always partly yearning for the tastes, smells and sights of that country. When he re­turned to Australia in 1960 he was clearly freed from the residual influence of his teacher, John Passmore. In that year he painted Spanish encounter in which a strong linear quality was to explode across the picture's space. This picture, as do most subsequent pictures, does more than reveal a desire to inhabit a landscape: it is Olsen's desire to be one with the landscape. Olsen says he had no wish to be an abstract painter. Aboriginal artists naturally did not conceive of themselves as abstractionists. They were trying to express the essence of what they saw, its isness, or as Olsen puts it: 'being with the landscape—not trying to make it—but being with it.'3 Olsen, who has collected tribal and primitive art, has thought long about the mystical qualities that lie in the being of our world and has sought with his lines, which are almost like force fields or ley lines, to break the artificial difference between us and the out-there. All is flow and Olsen's interest in Taoist philosophy is brought to mind. The importance to Olsen of this interest is most clearly seen in the ideas of the philosopher Chuang-tzu whose parables and anecdotes explore the laws that operate in the great or­ganic process of which man is but a part. Perhaps Paul Klee was putting it another way when he wrote: 'From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.'4

A painting then becomes more than a meta­phor which stands for something out there: it is an expression through the perceptions of the artist of the world translated in its essence to canvas. The artist manifests the oneness of being and the paradox of still movement, which is at the heart of all mystic traditions. In the words of the great Spanish mystic, San Juan de la Cruz: 'I live and do not live in myself.'

With maturity comes a sharpening of me­mory, and art becomes mneme or the capa­city of expressing the after-effects of experience. The Renaissance hermetic, Giordano Bruno, had a mission to teach that the artist, the poet, and the philosopher are all one, for the Mother of the Muses (Mnemosyne) is Memory. As Frances Yates says when writing of Bruno: 'Nothing comes out but that which first has been formed within, and it is therefore within that significant work is done.'5

These matters lead us to the kernel of art and, in Olsen's case, to his early interest in Jung and archetypes. It is generally not pos­sible to use the iconography of Medieval or Renaissance art in the modern world since most of the symbols have lost their meaning to us; yet we find in the painting Landscape wounded by summer, 1986, a bleeding wound that might be found in almost any Renaissance crucifixion. In this painting we find the bringing together of landscape (the out-there) and the human with a specifically religious and cultural reference.

Olsen had become acquainted with what was going on in Europe from the 1953 exhibition, 'French Painiing Today', which had introduced Art lnformel through the work of Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages with his black 'signs' which looked like enlarged Chinese characters. Also represented was Vieira da Silva whose linear forms gave the im­pression of space without the devices of per­spective.6 Seeing these works encouraged Ol­sen's idiosyncratic style which has primarily been marked by a strong linearism, and equal­ly importantly confirmed a more open and free use of space and line.

It has been claimed of Olsen's work, with particular reference to the Sydney Harbour pictures painted on his return from Spain, that 'European influences in his work were fused to produce a child-art type imagery. A wandering scrawl of linear superstructure was imposed on a colourful scumble of underpainting of alter­nating opaque and transparent areas.'7 Instead of 'child-art' we should read one of the least infantile art forms: Chinese calligraphy. This in­terest in calligraphy was later to appear in his strong uses of black: 'Black is very beautiful; what greater dramatic spring can be felt when black means white, for example, Chinese calli­graphy, Rembrandt, Goya and Kline.'8

Much has been made of the 'child-art' of Olsen; such a claim only serves to conceal a philosophical intention to express more than one dimension and time simultaneously, which he seeks to do by lines of energy which not only link areas of equal importance but charge each of these areas with an intensity of their own.

Henri Matisse spoke about not making one area of a painting more important than another, and Olsen has been faithful to this dictum for most of his painting life. For example in Where the bee sucks, there suck I, 1986, we have a large red area at the centre of the painting that recalls a seed pod exploding or even, to quote Saint-John Perse, 'a vulva streaming out life' which reaches through a myriad of lines to a world that is familiar to Olsen: there is his cat, his house, a fern tree, a horse. A man is incorporated into this wholeness, one of the lines reaches out to his fingers, and on this man's back trees are growing and he is the colour of the red Australian earth, while above it all a woman flies like a bee and sucks at a flower sprouting from this tangle of nature. Here are all disparate elements made one. It is the next step from Surrealism, another movement that deeply influenced Olsen while he was in Europe. And if one compares the seed pod centre of Where the bee sucks, there suck I with Olsen's paintings of the Void we find the same centralization, the difference being one is giving out and the other taking in. In this picture we have a reversal of the Void: here we have the equivalent of the Void turned into a mysti­cal cornucopia. It is not for nothing that many of Olsen's works since he first went to Lake Eyre have been of the desert; the desert has always been home to those in search of pro­found realities. After all, three of the world's major religions were founded in the desert.

Robert Hughes over-stresses the child-art aspect of Olsen's work, as he does the claim that Olsen was strongly influenced by the short-lived Cobra Group (1948-1950)9 who 'were interested in giving direct expression to subconscious fantasy with no censorship from the intellect.'10 Olsen's work is constantly being regulated by his intellect, often drawing on literary themes, especially from poetry; and frequently his work is highly referential, for example Figures descending Spanish Steps, 1986, clearly refers to Marcel Duchamp's Nude descending a staircase, no. 2 incorporat­ing the elongated figures of his dearly loved Alberto Giacometti. The contact with the Cobra Group was tenuous and an examination of the works of Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and Lucebert show similar dynamic forms, something which Olsen had already developed before he arrived in Europe, and may owe more to what he saw at the 'French Painting Today' exhibition than to any direct contact with the Cobra Group itself. In fact, the Cobra Group had dispersed six years before Olsen reached Paris with his already established  idiosyncratic linearism that is found in The Bicycle boys rejoice, 1955. What is probably closer to the truth is that Olsen, like most if not all artists, is-eclectic. It should not be forgotten that Olsen has always felt to use humour in his work, something which may easily be confused with this soi-disant child-art. 

This is a very interesting black and white photograph of Olsen, taken several years ago, in which he is painting in the midst of trees. The shadows from the trees and the minute twisting branches make it almost impossible to tell the painting apart from the branches and the shadows. Here are the lines of the Australian bush made manifest in silver bromide and paper. Any pool anywhere in the world will show the same curvilinear process as the creators of Romanesque, Celtic, and Aboriginal art seemed to understand perfectly well.

Olsen's intricate tracery of lines has found more than one echo in Australian art, from such as Ian Fairweather, who was doubtless also responding to the same sights—as well as a knowledge of Chinese calligraphy. In Olsen's recent series of Spanish paintings we see memory working at its fullest. Spain never left his memory, as is witnessed by the Paella paintings of 1980, and more importantly the Spanish experience of his late twenties was finally to free him from the residual influence of his teacher, John Passmore. When speaking of these paintings he says: 'paella is the colour of the Spanish flag, the rice is saffron laced with orangey-red peppers, chicken, fish, mussels, port, tomatoes and parsley. It is a sharing, gregarious, sumptuous dish. Its ori­gins are peasant and it brings together so many disparate elements.'11 This hedonism also contains the concept of uniting the disparate, of making one, as Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses in one of Olsen's favourite poems, 'Pied Beauty'.

Olsen was strongly affected by a painting of Francesco Goya called The dog, 1820-23, one of Goya's most abstract and personal paintings. 'I saw that painting once more in the Prado last year (1985). It has puzzled me for years. Custom has it that it is man who lifts his head and searches the heavens; the disquieting animal peeping from the earth (a Romantic writer said it was quicksand). He is joined to the earth—to the earth's pulse. The dog is probing the sky like a primitive radar asking advice.'12 Only the dog's head is visible as it looks up to a pale golden sky that is yet full of mysterious foreboding. In Goya's doglife escaping a void, 1986 which is both a pun on the fate of Goya's dog and a recollection of many of Olsen's earlier paintings in which the Void appears; Olsen sees Australia as a great saucer around whose rim we live, the centre being the Void. The usually waterless heart of Lake Eyre had inspired many earlier paintings after he had been there on excursions with the naturalist Vincent Serventy in 1974-76. 'The interior,' he says, 'has a great psychic pull for Australians as the sea had for the British. We feel we must make an odyssey to the silent part. When I am out there there's empty fullness. I found parallels with it in Taoism: if you have a drinking vessel its function is not in its walls but its emptiness—and this brings in another notion of that in emptiness there is fullness. And I think this has a great mystic Parallel with Australia—that it's always this emptiness, this great kind of sprawling thing—I sometimes think of the landscape as a sprawling animal. It is when you come to terms with this quality that the landscape informs you of its secrets.’13

The great spaces in these paintings, in some sense empty and full, recall another of Olsen's favourite poets, T.S. Eliot: 'the still point of the turning world ... where past and future are gathered.' In Goya's dog and the paella, 1986, the dog floats above the world represented by the round peasant dish. The dog is triumphant, even menacing; it hovers, and dominates, eating discarded paella as if it were the sun, as if it has risen out of the earth having learned the lesson from Goya's sky. Olsen says in his journal about Goya's dog—life escaping the void: 'Humbled by lack of soul, the dog sniffs to­wards the great void, the yearning for a sign, a star, a cloud - anything will do .. :14 The im­age of the dog has many significances: it is the humble servant of man, it is the hound of heaven, it is the cur who will take abuse unto death and hence in some mythologies has be­come the companion of the dead and the guardian of Hades. All of these Olsen sum­mons, and it might be noted that many of them are associated with the dark side, or the black side of life, as Federico Garcia Lorca put it.

Similarly in the painting, El amoladar (The tinker), 1986, this underside of life is told in a  narrative form. Olsen's work often has this narrative quality in which events occur simultaneously: the tinker moves through the land­scape a traditionally despised man, seeing all but only commenting that he has no time. By writing on the image, Olsen reinforces this occupation with time and space, and almost by accident he has added an absurd quotation from a Spanish phrase book about taking a cadaver to the hospital for an autopsy, thus ad­ding a quasi-magical and threatening quality that lies behind many of these recent pictures.

The humour in Olsen's work is becoming more and more pronounced: the above quota­tion from a phrase book, the tiny figures in Goya's dog and the paella and in Calle estrecha (the narrow street) and the Chaplin­esque walk of the Giacometti figures in Figures descending Spanish Steps all have a touch of the existential absurd and as such serve to emphasize the very darkness behind these pictures, a dark spirit, an élan. Lorca was to duende a word which in Spanish can signify the spirit of a work of art as well as mean a goblin, a mischievous imp.

In many recent 'landscape' pictures, such as those seen in a series published in the book 'The Land Beyond Time' (Macmillan, 1984) we see the same tilting of the landscape to fill the entire canvas he has been using for quite some time. It is by doing this that he has given ex­pression to the vastness of the landscape 'as a sprawling animal' as if seen from above: the vastness expressed by a lack of an horizon. However, in many of the Spanish pictures we find a use of the normal vertical view, a per­spective that has been appearing also in a ser­ies of seasonal pictures of the hill opposite his house in South Australia.

In Calle estrecha (the narrow street), 1986 we see one of the pictures that uses the vertical and is one of his most referential, echoing two quite different paintings: Early Sunday morning by Edward Hopper and View of Paris: the life of pleasure by Jean Dubuffet. This is one of the darkest pictures Olsen has ever painted:

'it is story disintegrated by surprise, it is tragic, sombre, Quixotic, with words whispered: 'Dice nada', say nothing, giving the inference that something strange is going on behind those doors'15 one of which has a lamp that recalls Picasso's Guernica, 1937, a painting that was also using black. As Lorca wrote: 'Whatever has black sounds has real inspiration, for these black sounds are the mystery and very root of art. There is something almost divine and inspired about grief so pure and so deep as to be black grief.'


1. John Olsen - In Search of the Open Country, exhibi­tion catalogue, Heide Park and Art Gallery, Bulleen, 1986, p.7.

2. Ibid.

3. From a conversation with Christopher Leonard, Clarendon, South Australia, July, 1986.

4. Paul Klee, On Modern Art, Faber and Faber, London, 1967, p.13.

5. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, Routledge Kegan and Paul, London, 1966, p.305.

6. French Painting Today, exhibition catalogue, National Art Galleries of Australia, 1953.

7. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Art, edit­ed by Harold Osborne, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981, pp. 417-418.

8. From John Olsen' s unpublished journals, 1985 and 1986.

9. Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, Pelican, Ring­wood, 1970, pp.262-267.

10. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Art, op.cit., p.116.

11. John Olsen - In Search of the Open Country, op.cit. 12.

12. John Olsen's journals, op.cit.

13. From a conversation with Leonard, op.cit.

14. John Olsen's journals, op.cit.

15. From a conversation with Leonard, op.cit.

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