Arts City: John Olsen: The You Beaut Country Exhibit

Arts City: John Olsen: The You Beaut Country Exhibit

I recently had the opportunity of meeting John Olsen and he took us on a tour of his latest exhibition at NGV Australia, Federation Square. The exhibition itself is extremely informative and the layout is fabulous. There is a huge collection of John Olsen's masterpieces and an art lover will not leave feeling disappointed but inspired. Whatever you do, don't miss this amazing exhibition:


John Olsen is one of Australia’s greatest living artists. Born in Newcastle NSW in 1928, Olsen is well known for his energetic and distinctive painting style and in particular for his lyrical depiction of the landscape. He is a major figure in the story of Australian art and his unique and sensual pictorial language presents a very personal view of the world. John Olsen: The You Beaut Country offers an unparalleled opportunity to examine Olsen’s consummate place in Australian art history. His You beaut country series, which followed his return to Australia in 1960 after three years travelling in Europe, began what would be a lifelong interest in representing the landscape and Australian identity. These works are presented alongside his more recent paintings, prints and watercolours, including those inspired by the filling of Lake Eyre. The exhibition reveals an artist who at 88 years of age has lost none of his passion for his subject matter, nor his creative vitality and retains a unique ability to capture the spirit of the Australian landscape. A National Gallery of Victoria exhibition in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The Ian Potter Centre:
NGV Australia, ground level
16 Sep 16 – 12 Feb 17
Open 10AM – 5PM Daily

You can buy tickets HERE


Before undertaking formal studies in art, Olsen used his natural talent for drawing as an illustrator and cartoonist, selling his drawings to newspapers and magazines to supplement his income. This section of the exhibition covers Olsen’s formative years as an art student as well as his early exhibitions, including his first exhibition in 1955 at Macquarie Galleries in Sydney.


Olsen departed Australia late in 1956 and travelled to Europe – first to London, then Paris and Spain. This period had a profound impact on Olsen’s life and practice. ‘I came to understand the wonderful bath known as the Mediterranean Sea where Western art, Western philosophy had its origins. It had a profound effect; in fact, I still wear a beret to show my connection to the area.’ John Olsen


In 1962 Olsen was commissioned by Sydney art dealer Frank McDonald to paint the ceiling of his Woollahra residence. The resulting work Summer in the you beaut country is a vibrant sunburst; its variety of creatures, grinning faces and meandering lines celebrate the totality of the environment and our integration with the natural world. Olsen’s intention with these works was that they create an all-at-once world in which near and far, and large and small, occupy the same space. The works’ overhead aspect aims to create an immersive experience.


During his three years in Europe the Australian landscape had not been far from Olsen’s mind, and on his return in 1960 he commenced work on what has become his best known series of works. In his You Beaut Country paintings Olsen distils what he sees as the contradictory beauty latent in Australia. ‘The you beaut country – well, that’s a world of imagination. It’s also a comment on an Australian aesthetic; for example, a hamburger can be beaut, a Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa can be especially beaut. It’s to do with a mental explanation of a feeling. It also says something about the openness of being Australian. I think that adaptability is one of the remarkable things about Australia and Australians – their openness to new ideas and new ways of living – and I think that the term ‘you beaut’ shares that kind of enthusiasm, that openness. I like that Australia has no fixed identity, it is so capable of change. With the series I also wanted to really come to terms with the experience of a total landscape.’ John Olsen


Olsen’s close contact with Australia’s natural world was taken to a new level in 1971 when he was invited to join a film crew developing the Wild Australia series of documentaries focusing on Australia’s wildlife and habitats. It was from this point onwards that depictions of wildlife, such as pelicans, brolgas and frogs became more of a feature in his work.

For more than five decades Olsen has maintained journals assembled from his writings, sketches, photographs and ephemera – tickets, postcards and birds’ feathers. ‘He who speaks of art speaks of poetry.’ John Olsen

In 1969 Olsen moved from Sydney to Dunmoochin, a communal property at Cottles Bridge, about forty kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Artist Clifton Pugh had established Dunmoochin more than a decade earlier; over time it became a regular meeting place for other artists, and in the late 1960s, when Olsen was there, Fred Williams, Albert Tucker, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd were all regular visitors.

Olsen was first introduced to the medium of decorated ceramics in the late 1960s. While not a potter himself, his use of the medium follows in the tradition of painters collaborating with potters that includes artists such as Russian art theorist and abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso.


In July 1981 Olsen moved from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, where he had been living since early 1980, to a house perched on the top of a hill in Clarendon in South Australia, about thirty minutes’ drive south from Adelaide. ‘It was like viewing the landscape from a crow’s nest.’ John Olsen


Olsen’s time in Spain in the late 1950s had been both formative and inspiring. In 1985 he returned there in order, he has said, to revisit Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937. The visit energised him and once back in Australia Olsen painted a number of new works, including Calle estrecha (The narrow street), 1986, and El Amoladar (The tinker), 1986, which were inspired by Francisco de Goya’s black mural paintings.

Olsen first visited Lake Eyre with field naturalist Vincent Serventy in October 1974, when the lake was filling for only the second time since European settlement. When Olsen arrived it was teeming with wildlife, and in the months following Olsen recorded and visually recounted his experience. He has referred to Lake Eyre as ‘the void’, due to its overwhelming expanse when full and the contradictory nature of it being a lake that is more often waterless.


Olsen lives by a lake on a small farm in idyllic surroundings in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. He shares this place with his fourth wife, Katharine, an assortment of wild waterbirds, an enormous but friendly Great Dane and a herd of beautifully groomed dressage horses. He has a large and airy ‘en-suite’ studio opening from his bedroom, where he paints most days. At night he often wakes and paints then, too. In a career spanning almost seven decades, Olsen’s creative output has been immense. He still exhibits regularly, and at eighty-eight years of age retains a remarkable energy and extraordinary passion for his art and for life. ‘Stay with your dream and learn to play.’ John Olsen



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