"Hello my lovelies": Artist John Olsen greets his past at the Art Gallery of NSW RetrospectiveSydney Morning Herald 10 March 2017
"I rather like them," Olsen muses. "This is landscape in motion, I'm imagining, I'm travelling through the landscape ... "
Olsen finds his hand print in one completed after his sojourn to Hill End. They show the first signs of the energised, spidery lines that link his later works.
The artist's sensuous response to country represents one turning point in many in the artist's seven-decade-long artistic career, according to co-curator Deborah Edwards.
His obsession began, as Olsen remembers it, when he was five years old, caught scribbling in his mother's recipe books but for the purposes of the exhibition it starts with formal studies at the Dattilo Rubbo Art Studios in 1947 when he was 19.
His art school teacher insisted he paint like Cezanne. "It wasn't really me," he says. "It was either that or, 'Ollie, you better leave'. That's how it was."
Even though the European imitations were not his "personality", art school did give teach him to draw from eye to hand. He doesn't think much of that early still life, rating it "one out of 10". But he thinks a great deal of Sydney Sun, painted in 1965 for the ceiling of a dining room in a Bellevue Hill home.
A churlish British critic once described Sydney Sun as like standing under "a cascade of diarrhoea" in the very same breath as he described Frederick McCubbin's The Pioneer as "poverty porn". For Olsen it represents one of his best works: "Ten out of 10."
When told of plans for the retrospective, which has travelled from the National Gallery of Victoria where it premiered in September, Olsen says he was delighted but initially worried he might have been deemed to have failed. "It's a high risk area. If you pardon my indulgences – [I think] I haven't."
Across the exhibition, Olsen's work morphs into the vibrant work that has come to typify his later artistic sensibilities: from Olsen's three panel painting Spanish Encounter, his first major work upon return from Europe, to his series on Lake Eyre and the dark and brooding Archibald Prize-winning Self Portrait: Janus Faced.
"To be creative you must follow your instincts, it's the primary factor," say Olsen who, aged 89, is still painting. "If you falter on that you are never going to make it."
There are two recent paintings of Olsen's in the retrospective. Before Christmas wife Katharine died of cancer, and art has filled the void.
"What's breathing? I am never bored. My body is in ruin but I'm a child. I love painting. It's so good, it's so immediate. They can say what they like about painting being dead. The most immediate thing is the brush mark that says I am."John Olsen: the you beaut country opens at the Art Gallery of NSW Friday