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John Olsen: Transformations, the Sublime and Warm Floors

Speaking with John Olsen is always a positive experience. It was a cold winter’s day this week, four degrees in fact, but John spoke of the shining winter sun, the bountiful light and added with his unique laughter that he had heated floors and all was well in his world. He is in his studio as we talk and in the process of creating a grand mural for Collins Square. The privilege of talking with arguably Australia’s greatest living painters cannot be exaggerated; not only are there commentaries about what is involved in creative processes but in the course of the exchange he interspersed his thoughts on painting and painters with reference to poets and philosophers in a manner that ignited the mind and the imagination – indeed actually broke down the artificial boundaries between them.

Even Emmanuel Kant, an eighteenth century philosopher, who argued that the mind was the prime organizing force in understanding our world was somewhat challenged by the sublime, which he conceded was inexplicable in rational terms; it was the ‘sublime’ in Olsen’s work that was discussed. Olsen spoke of one of his encounters with the sublime, which he painted in his Lake Eyre series.   He spoke passionately about that experience of flying over the lake last year which because of the Queensland floods had turned into a ‘vast inland sea… I could not see the horizon due to the vastness of the waters. There were seagulls and thousands of pelicans and I discovered later fish brought down by the rivers became part of its living creatures’. One could hear the sheer joy in his voice as he spoke about the enigma of Lake Eyre which flying over in more recent times had transformed into great expense of white salt and hundreds of skeletons’. The enigmatic magnetism of the lake is communicated and Olsen speaks about the beauty of transformation and change and makes a general statement that one senses he applies equally to his life as his art ‘ You can’t step into the same river twice’. He is citing the ancient philosopher Heraclitus who believed that everything is in a state of flux, or change and that the eternal condition of the universe consists of a tension between opposites and although opposites may have alternating dominance neither will rule, in fact, it is a conflict that sustains a continuity of change. The paintings Olsen made of Lake Eyre are then a study of such processes and when one stands before the art from the Lake Eyre: The Desert Sea exhibition (Metro Gallery, 1912) the reds, yellows, and blues elicit an experience of being there in Australia’s centre which Olsen refers to as our metaphorical ‘unconscious’.

In a special sense Olsen paints poetic metaphors what he calls ‘extended metaphors’ but really only the kind that co-exists with sensual experiences within life itself- at least in terms of the ways we can see our world. Emotions are another sphere again and although Olsen concedes that no doubt his emotional life exists somewhere in his work it is definitely not a starting point when he paints. ‘Emotions’ he notes are just ‘too confusing’. ‘I don’t’ he says ‘enter into that kind of confusion’. Van Gogh’s dramatic observations he suggests are dominated by the psyche, not so much from a mental disorder by from a psyche ‘racked by anxiety’. Olsen believes it is his original affinity with Oriental art that inspires him- that ‘ying and yang’ of the landscape. This excludes an interest in representing the violence of nature, which we discussed in relation to the current Turner exhibition showing at the National Gallery in which there is a room dedicated to the Sublime. Turner’s painting ‘the Avalanche’ becomes a subject of discussion and Olsen simply says that that he is not as dramatic as Turner but rather he is ‘more ambivalent about the landscape in an oriental manner’.

Olsen has a lot to say about seeing Australian landscape from the birds eye view a view that has certainly been the way of aboriginal art. Aboriginal art has taught us the way he concedes, though their paintings, at least the traditional ones, are maps of a nomadic people that encapsulate a complex culture incorporating drinking sites, sacred places and ‘dreamings’ of an ancient people whose knowledge incorporates thousands of years of living in all parts of Australia. Olsen does not believe that we can know it in the same way but agrees that their conception of it from the sky is one that we can learn from. The Australians that settled the shores of an ancient civilization did not venture into the centre but instead sat on the edges of this vast land. He points out that the first painting by a post-colonial artist was in 1922 when Hans Heysen painted the Flinders Ranges in 1922. That, he exclaims, is an extraordinary length of time since the early settlements of the late eighteenth century. He explains this reticence on behalf of painters to enter the heart of Australia as the consequence of the failure of the Burke and Will’s expedition to find it in 1865.

Olsen pays tribute to Fred Nolan, Russell Drysdale and Fred Williams who ventured into the bush and represented it in ways that opened up new territories for those Australians that could not even imagine the sheer profundity and beauty of the interior and who mostly understood it falsely as a ‘dead centre’. He knows that his art is very different from theirs’ but calls them ‘fellow travellers’ nonetheless. He credits Nolan for an insight that saw the landscape as ‘not symmetrical’ and as ‘untidy’. Olsen’s view is one that comes from seeing Australia as it is in contrast to European landscape that has a certain order that is alien to this continent. Australian landscape is ‘ vast, untidy and unruly’ and as he has often done before in interviews he cites the first stanza of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Pied Beauty’. In looking at this stanza it becomes clear why poetry, particularly poetry that plays with words, with alliterations, with an emphasis of entering into a landscape visually, into its light, its forms and its colours is important to Olsen and his vision.  In reading the cited stanza one also understands why Olsen admires the paintings of Fred Williams. But then in the spirit of transformation Olsen and Williams apply Hopkins English vision to our Australian centre.

Pied Beauty
Glory be to God for dappled things-
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced-fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades; their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (how knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet; sour; a dazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change
Praise him. (1877)

The form of the poem of course is unconventional but then so is Olsen with his use of stark, glowing colours and his delicate lines that inhabit his paintings communicating like a musical score of movement. Like Hopkins he likes the idea of ‘turning the world upside down’. His paintings show what A.D. Hope had hoped for and expressed in his poem ‘Australia’- originally experienced as a place where ‘second hand Europeans [who] pullulate/Timidly on the edge of alien shores’. Hope’s wish was that he, on returning from Europe, would find a new Australia and that  ‘It is from the desert the prophets will come’. Olsen qualifies as such a prophet. Thinking further about the colour that Hopkins’ poem exudes I asked him about his colour beginning with a reference to Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector and in particular the way the protagonist of the novel, Hurtle Duffield, represented his final painterly vision in the terms of ‘Indigo’ and the sacred (‘Too tired too endless obvi indi-ggoddd’) . Olsen assured me in a somewhat amused way that we all conceive colour in our subjective ways and the Bret Whitely might refer to his blue has ‘marine blue’ because that was what he saw outside his window.

As the interview was coming to its natural close we discussed the meaning of the day and how he would spend it. He returned to discussing his current mural for Collins Square which will be ‘super-large’ and that he was having a marvelous time doing it. He was drawing from the experiences of an earlier large mural he did of the Sydney opera house and talked about how different painting murals was to easel painting. Beginning with sketches he would then break the overview into scenes. His aim is, and he laughed his characteristic laugh, was to make something light and floating and filled with a spirit of optimism for those poor people going to their computers for the day. I asked him if when engaged in social situations away from his studio was he thinking about painting ‘Always!’ he answered with gusto and then laughed telling me that he had heard when Donald Friend was asked why he painted the latter replied ‘to avoid boredom’. If he, identifies with the painter’s response albeit in a humorous way, and I suspect he does, then it is clear Olsen has avoided that feared dreadful human state brilliantly.

Alex McCulloch