He was born on 21 January 1928 in Newcastle, the son of Esma Agnes (née McCubbin) and Henry Olsen, who worked at the Cooee Clothing company. When he was seven his father was transfered to Sydney, where they lived at Bondi. Nevertheless he continued to hold deep visual memories of the industrial landscape of Newcastle. In Sydney he attended Paddington Junior Technical High until the outbreak of World War II when his father enlisted in the Army, his mother and sister stayed with relatives at Yass, and Olsen became a boarder at St Joseph’s Hunters Hill.
After obtaining his Leaving Certificate in 1943 he worked as a clerk for Elders Smith, a job he loathed. His early talent for drawing was soon turned to good purpose as he became a freelance cartoonist and illustrator for a number of Sydney based publications.
His first art classes at the Julian Ashton School in 1946 were to help him develop his illustrative skills. When he wanted to learn more about life drawing so enrolled in Dattilo Rubbo’s School. This was followed by a return to the Julian Ashton School in 1950.
Always convivial, Olsen began to move in the circle of artists, writers and coffee drinkers who were congregating around Rowe Street as a sort of Sydney bohemia (many of these would later form the nucleus of “The Push”. He came to know Carl Plate’s Rowe Street Notanda Gallery with its art books and reproductions of European modern art. He decided to become a serious artist.
He was aided in his ambition by the difficult but brilliant teacher, John Passmore, who taught at the Julian Ashton Art School from 1950 to 1954. In his old age Olsen recalled Passmore’s uncompromising rigour and his non-precious approach to materials. Olsen also took classes at East Sydney Technical College with the less bombastic Godfrey Miller. The 1950s was a time of renewed prosperity after the trauma of War and economic Depression. Young radical students, like Olsen, were keen to stake their claim as leaders of the avant garde. In 1953 he led a student demonstration against the conservative Trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, and was quoted in the press criticising the awarding of the Archibald Prize to William Dargie. Over two decades later, Olsen was himself seen as one of the more conservative Trustees of the same institution.
In 1956 his work was selected for the prestigious Contemporary Australian paintings : Pacific Loan Exhibition on board Orient Line S.S. Orcades , an exhibition that took what was seen as the best Australian art on an ocean cruise as a form of cultural exchange. In December of the same year, Olsen joined with John Passmore, Ralph Balson, Robert Klippel, Eric Smith and William Rose in a group exhibition at Macquarie Galleries – Direction 1 . This exhibition was later credited with bringing Abstract Expressionism to Australia, although, with the exception of Klippel, none of the artists involved had any real knowledge of contemporary art activities in other countries.
Olsen’s paintings, some based on moody readings of T.S.Eliot, so impressed the art critic of the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Haefliger, that he encouraged the Sydney businessman Robert Shaw, to give him a private scholarship to Europe, on condition that he not be based in the UK. Instead he went to Paris, where he spent some months in 1957 learning etching in S.W. Hayter’s Atelier 17 Workshop in Paris, before travelling to Spain. By July 1958 he was in Majorca, where he based himself in a house in Deya to paint. He also worked as an apprentice chef, and developed a life long love of Mediterranean food, both its flavours and its appearance.
The distilled essence of these Spanish years continued to flavour his art on his return to Sydney in 1960. Olsen’s paintings of the 1960s established him as one of the leading artists of his generation. He painted Spanish Encounter (Now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales)shortly after his return while living in Victoria Street Woolloomooloo, in loose-knit creative community with many of Sydney’s leading younger artists. Later he stayed for some month’s at Paul Haefliger’s former house in the old gold mining town of Hill End, before eventually settling at Watson’s Bay with his young family. This was the seascape that inspired Entrance to the Seaport of Desire and other works, although these paintings were also celebrations of the hedonism of Sydney life.
Even though he was now lauded as a major Australian artist, Olsen did not earn enough from his art to support his family, so supplemented his income by teaching at East Sydney Technical College, Desiderius Orban’s school, the Mary White Art School and lectured to Architecture students at the University of New South Wales. In 1968 he ran his own art school at the Bakery Art School, but this only lasted a year. In 1969 the Olsen family moved to Clifton Pugh’s collective of artists at Dunmoochin in Victoria. On their return to Sydney in 1971, Olsen bought a large property at Dural, north-west of Sydney,and here built a large house and studio. This was the base from which he ventured on many painting and drawing expeditions, including one memorable visit to Lake Eyre in flood, which became the subject of a major series of paintings and prints.
In 1980 Olsen moved to Wagga Wagga to join fellow artist Noela Hjorth. Later they moved to Clarendon in the Adelaide Hills, where he lived and worked until the end of the relationship in 1987.He returned to Sydney’s artistic community in Paddington. In 1989 he moved to Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains with his fourth wife, Katherine. In 1999 they moved to a large property, Owlswood, near Bowral, and in 2011 to a seaside property at Avoca Beach on the Central Coast.
John Olsen has been one of Australia’s most consistently honoured artists for most of his professional life. His work is represented in most Australian public collections and he has been the subject of a number of monographs. He was awarded an O.B.E. for services to the Arts in 1977 and an Order of Australia (A.O.) in 2001.In 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle.


Joanna Mendelssohn
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