Celebrate Australia Day with Olsen's epic landscape
Sydney Morning Herald 23 January 2016
Janet HawleyFor full article, click here.
John Olsen designed his splendid en-suite studio so that, like the artist Henri Matisse, he could be wheeled from his bed to create art until his last breath.
Yet Australia's senior artist still wakes every morning with a new painting in his mind and walks freely to his studio to spend the day painting, standing up, the way he always has.
"I'm not old, I'm just aged," Olsen says, beaming, as the sun glints on the lake which laps his studio and sprawling house in the NSW Southern Highlands.
"One great value in being aged is that it allows retrospective thinking. I can now look back at the changes in my lifetime through a mental telescope.
"The thing that bothers me most about this new world of instant overloads of mass communication and accelerated pace of daily life is that people are losing their sense of personal dreaming. That sense of being intimately yourself is disappearing.
"Everyone is now programmed to be so busy, they are forgetting to think deeply, so there's no time to develop their imagination and find their individuality.
"If you're running all the time, never pausing to think deeply, it's very dangerous.
"It also worries me that despite all this instant information, it doesn't seem to me that humankind is any wiser."
Invited to play the oracle as we sit by the lake, with waterbirds gracefully swooping to ripple the surface, Olsen says we need to counteract life's increasing speed.
"The Greek philosopher Epicuruswisely said: 'Take more time, cover less ground.'
"I'd like people to rediscover the valuable art of daydreaming. Just sit and look at something, an apple or a lake. The more you look and allow your thoughts to roll, the more a transformation takes place. It's a meditative process and so rewarding.
"But if you're always in a hurry, you'll never get beyond the superficial, you'll never learn the exciting, original adventure of deep thinking."
Never has nature copulated with such fun, fantasy and creativity than in Olsen's paintings.Edmund Capon
When he was a young artist travelling in Majorca and relishing the Mediterranean lifestyle, the poet Robert Graves warned Olsen: "You can paint pretty pictures all you like, but without metaphor, you have nothing."
"I took that lesson aboard," admits Olsen, "so I read poetry and books every day. I don't speed-read, I read. It's nourishment for my brain, and as I read I let my thoughts wander, and those meandering thoughts find their way into the pictures I paint. It's always a journey on the canvas, and when I start, I don't want to already know the ending.
Asked what he's learned about life that he wishes he'd known much earlier, Olsen replies: "Stay in your centre. Your life changes, but you don't. Never lose your core.
"You must care for your individuality; don't get swamped by others' opinions, pressures, or unhappy people around you.
"As a creative person, you must always look for what is not commonplace, what strikes a chord in you. You feel an intuition about what's essential. The vital point is that you must trust your own instincts."
Olsen appreciates that many people would not stand the solitude of being an artist or a writer, working alone each day, self-starting every morning.
"It never gets any easier. I still wake with an idea in mind, but it's ebb and flow. The important thing you learn with creativity is that the tide comes in and the tide goes out. There will be fallow periods when the work is not going well, so it's best to put that painting aside, just turn its face to the wall.
"And often, months later when you look at it again, you can see possibilities in it that you couldn't see when you were struggling with it previously."
From the age of four, Olsen drew compulsively. "I always knew I wanted to be an artist; it's the only way I feel fulfilled. I'm unhappy when I'm not being an artist.
Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, says Olsen loves the flourish and passion of the brush as much as he loves his subject. His paintings always show real emotion and expression.
"John Olsen at 88 is still in full swing," says Capon. "John is absolutely the glass half-full artist. His paintings make life a joy to behold. They simply burst with spirit. Never has nature copulated with such fun, fantasy and creativity than in Olsen's paintings."
From the studio, Olsen leads me to his kitchen, where he concocts a salad nicoise, effervescently describing his love of colours and the shapes of ingredients, then reminisces about carousing with fellow artists after long lonely weeks spent in studios.
We eat outside beneath willow trees, and Olsen exclaims how he loves dappled light, dappled anything. For the thousandth time he begins reciting, word perfect, Gerard Manley Hopkins' Pied Beauty:
'Glory be to god for dappled things ?'
Asked to describe the quintessential qualities we should celebrate on Australia Day, Olsen responds:
"We should remember it took so many brave, hard-working people to bring us here, thank you. And how lucky we are that we have a country that we do appreciate, because Australia has a lot to give.
"I love our laconic character and the larrikin streak that is an essential part, because it is unpredictable and profoundly felt. Above all, we should remind ourselves ? never lose sight of a fair go. And remember the value of true friendship. Unless we love one another, we shall die."
He adds: "We should also clap our hands that, at last, we have a prime minister and his wife who are not afraid to admit that they enjoy art. It's been a long drought."
CHILDHOOD BY THE SEA (2015)
"I grew up by the sea, and I miss it. As one grows more aged, memory becomes a powerful force, and I'm constantly reminded of my childhood at Bondi. I played on the beach, and it was my imaginary world. We'd jump on bluebottles stranded on the sand to hear them pop; gaze at the horizon and spot ships sailing away.
"The head in the picture is me, metaphorically speaking, a child loving swimming in the bouncing, rolling sea, with all these wondrous creatures in the water around me. I've always loved squid for their wiggly shapes and graceful movement of their tentacles.
"Feeling the surging movement of the ocean, the push and pull of the tides, riding waves and dumpers, absorbing the sounds and glorious sunny colours ? my whole psyche is being informed. I was absorbing this without realising it. Love of nature is in my DNA from my earliest memories.
"I love edges ? the edge of the coast, the edge of the void. So much happens on the edges.
"In Australia, we are so blessed with these wonderful experiences, full of optimism, these childhood moments playing by the sea."
LAKE EYRE, THE DESERT SEA (2014)
"I first went to Lake Eyre in 1974. It was only the second time it had flooded, since Cook landed in Australia. Swollen rivers poured in to fill the dry lake, transforming it into a vast inland sea.
"I became fascinated with the paradox of Lake Eyre: there it is, and there it isn't.
"Suddenly the silent dry salt pans transform into a vast lake filled with fish, flotillas of noisy birds and animal life teem in. Then it dries out and becomes a vast silent, salt-encrusted expanse again.
"Lake Eyre has a special spiritual quality that kept drawing me back to it, time and again. It's so full of wondrous contradictions and enigmas, which inspire more meditative contemplation.
MORNING AT THE LILY POND (2015)
"This is a celebration of the bounties of nature, bursting with joyousness. I fell in love with tropical lily ponds on a trip to northern Queensland in the 1970s.
"I'm in this delicious pond, with the waterlilies and frogs and fluctuations of movement, the tropical light draining down on the lush yellows, blues and greens, and I'm in heaven. I want the paint to sing on the canvas,
"I become whatever I am painting, the frog, the waterlilies, all the swirling organisms in the pond. Once I get the rhythm going, the painting propels itself along. It's exhilarating feeling this intimacy with the natural world.
"My mad love affair with frogs began with a tree frog I saw on that trip. I loved the crazy articulation of their limbs, the surprising way they suddenly leap, the humour in their big eyes and physical agility. I love the contradiction of this animated frog coming out of the still lily pond.
"I did a few frog paintings, and they sold like rockets, then everyone demanded them, so much so it terrified me. Why are people fascinated with frogs? It is the transfiguration from a tadpole to a frog? Or is that frog really a Double Bay dowager? Or if you kiss a frog, he turns into a prince?
"I've been mad about gulping pelicans, brolgas dancing in great leaps, giraffes with dappled gangling legs.
"Nature is my muse, a constant source of enlightenment and magic."
WHERE WATTLE POLLEN STAINS THE DOUBTING HEART (2014)
"I love painting wattle, it's a joyous explosion of colour. Yellow is such a magical, optimistic, sunny colour.
"[French artist] Bonnard loved yellow. A friend was watching Bonnard painting his final picture, and commented: 'I think there's too much yellow in it.' Bonnard replied: 'Yes, and I'm going to give it more yellow, and more yellow.'
"This work is inspired by the poem Terra Australis, written by my friend the late James McAuley. It's his introspective journey into the Australian landscape, and has evocative lines ?
'The wattle/Scatters the pollen on the doubting heart?'
"I've painted the Riverina country just outside Canberra, where the Murrumbidgee River winds its way around. Wattle is such a wonderful contrast against that lovely dry-biscuit ochre landscape.
"The dark brown central heart is a symbolic large seed pod, and honey birds are hovering around it, feasting on wattle blossoms.
"There are multiple meanings in the doubting heart and seed pod metaphor. It can be that in moments of intense self-doubt, seeing glorious wattle blossom can reaffirm our faith in ourselves; remind us of that eternal optimism, that nature rejuvenates itself and continues the cycle of life ? and so can we."
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