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John Olsen

March 2012

  • Wendy Cavenett

At Lake Eyre, ancient waterways bloom with life

John Olsen clearly remembers the day he flew over Lake Eyre for the very first time. It was 1974 and he was only 45 years old. Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister and Frank Packer had recently died. Several months earlier, a human skeleton, believed to be 40,000 years old, was found at Lake Mungo. The La Niña season had been particularly strong that year and Lake Eyre had flooded to six metres. Water had transformed the arid basin into a wondrous ecosystem teeming with life. Pieces of salt floated like small icebergs, and the horizon seemed to blur and in some instances, just disappear. As Olsen recalls, Australia’s dead heart was more alive and more sublime than he could have ever imagined.

“It was a very emotional experience,” Olsen says. “It’s always emotional. Lake Eyre is very moving, so immensely ancient. On that first flight, naturalist Vincent Serventy was with me, a marvellous person to be with because he not only explained the geography but also the birds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands of birds! He also told me about the fish, because the seabirds wouldn’t be there without them. So it’s a kind of fish festival out in Lake Eyre!”

Olsen is laughing. Our conversation over the next hour is exciting, unpredictable, and full of whimsy. He listens, he philosophises; he quotes poetry and laughs with such youthful vigour that it’s hard to believe he’s 84 years old. Yet this is a man who was born when King George V was still Monarch, and poets such as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats were still publishing. There was no Internet, no iPhone and certainly no obsession with social networking. Back then, people lived much shorter lives, but there was a connection to nature that seems lost by many in today’s urban environments.

“Its possible parallel has the ascendency in technology and information,” Olsen says, “and that seems to stream along and fascinate eternally. And what’s forgotten is the earth, the very thing that we tread on. It’s a phenomenon really, especially in a country like Australia. Most of us are a new people in a very old continent, and we’ve got to find ways of understanding it, of understanding our sense of place. Instead, we live a saucer-like existence, living around the edge of a country that has such a vast and fascinating interior.”

Part of that fascinating interior is Lake Eyre. Covering almost one-sixth of Australia’s total landmass, the Lake Eyre Basin has been a constant in Olsen’s life. For nearly 40 years he has been visiting its mysterious expanse, a space, both physical and psychological, he fondly refers to as the “unconscious plughole of Australia – the edge of the void”.

Dry or in flood, its ancient charm of transformation continues to seduce Olsen as his latest exhibition at Melbourne’s Metro Gallery attests. Entitled Lake Eyre: The Desert Sea, it features a selection of oils and watercolours that celebrate the process of Lake Eyre’s most recent flooding. Amidst the richness of colour – from blues and muddy browns to deep crimsons, and hues of rose and yellow – it is Olsen’s ability to retain the life and interconnectedness of Nature that draws the viewer into each image. To paraphrase Sydney artist and art critic, James Gleeson, Life burns within these works.

“You only grasp Lake Eyre by the overview,” Olsen says, “and it’s the same with the rest of the Australian landscape. You just don’t really get it on the ground because the scale is so big, but being elevated you can see its size and its shape. It reveals itself to you, and unlike the European landscape – which has more foreground, middle distance and horizon – once you take this overview of the Australian landscape, you begin to say, ‘Look, I think I’m more interested in the way this landscape writes itself’… its metaphorical magic. Now there’s a clue.”

Olsen is on the phone from his new property in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. Located at the side of a beautiful lake, he admits he’s already in love with the waterbirds. It’s a beautiful slice of country, an area of high rainfall and swollen rivers. Water, it seems, is an important part of Olsen’s life. It is, he says, the great reflective element, an intrinsic part of nature that connects civilisation to the landscape. Lake Eyre, Sydney Harbour, “the great bath of the Mediterranean”, have all played a significant role in Olsen’s life and art.

Born in the industrial town of Newcastle in 1928, Olsen drew compulsively from an early age. When he was five, he attended elocution lessons where he would recite poetry. Its use of the extended metaphor would become very influential in later years. In 1935, he moved with his family to Bondi Beach in Sydney. He attended St Joseph’s College, graduated, and worked while studying art.

In 1955, Olsen staged his first solo exhibition, and the following year, he was part of the seminal abstract and abstract expressionist Direction 1 exhibition. By 1957, Olsen’s potential was widely recognised, and Sydney businessman, Robert Shaw, agreed to sponsor him to live and paint overseas. Olsen studied printmaking in Paris and then settled in Majorca, a small island off the coast of Spain.

He recalls an experience on a beach on the Costa Brava. He was riding a Lambretta and happened upon a group of fishermen mending nets by the edge of the sea. It was almost midday. “I noticed that the darkened shadows from the cart and from their equipment were more important than the objects themselves. You can see it in Salvador Dali as well – it’s a kind of element. The truth is on the shadow side as well as the light side, and that observation had a big influence on me.”

Olsen returned to Sydney in 1960. His experiences of the Mediterranean and the influence of European art had changed him greatly. He found the energy of Sydney intoxicating. He taught art and produced the critically acclaimed You Beaut Country series of images. In 1971, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. Called Salute to five bells, it was inspired by Kenneth Slessor’s epic poem written in memory of a friend who drowned in Sydney Harbour. Regarded as one of the great Australian poems, Five Bells is a profound homage to the universal themes of time and memory, and life and death.

Throughout his career, Olsen has received numerous awards including an O.B.E. in 1977, and an Order of Australia in 2001. His Self Portrait Janus Faced won the 2005 Archibald Prize. Today, Olsen is regarded as one of Australia’s greatest landscape artists. His ability to capture the liberating force of a land and its people has been a revelation. He is a master of drawing, printmaking, watercolour, and oil. It’s “sensation caught on the run” he observed of his own work several years ago.

On March 24, 2012, Olsen launched Paul Lockyer’s book, Lake Eyre: A journey through the heart of the continent, at the Tim Olsen Gallery in Sydney. Lockyer, along with his colleagues John Bean and Gary Ticehurst, perished when their helicopter crashed on the eastern side of Lake Eyre in South Australia in August 2011. They were filming their third documentary about the flooding of Lake Eyre. Olsen, who was invited to accompany them, was recovering from heart surgery. He was too sick to go.

At the launch, Olsen’s painting, Approaching Lake Eyre, dedicated to the memory of Lockyer, was unveiled. Olsen also read out The Immediacy of the Actual, a poem he penned for the veteran ABC journalist.
“Lake Eyre is immensely ancient,” Olsen says. “There’s such a riveting silence, and you somehow feel your own aloneness as you’re standing on the edge of the lake. I mentioned in the poem, that the Dreamtime Kudimurka spirit allows no place for man or beast… and there are these three modern explorers, trying to understand the process that makes Lake Eyre. They complete two fabulous films – and down they go, in an extended second, a mechanical Icarus falls from the sky. Spin. Spinning. Spun. Then silence.”

Olsen talks about ‘real time’ and ‘memory time’. He alludes to the significance of the shadow of the past – of how and what we remember is percolated and changed. “It’s the thing that stains you,” he says. “With loss, first you must feel it. It’s just something that can’t be counterfeited. And then… well for me, it’s more instinctual than anything else.”
Olsen says it’s a cold day in the Southern Highlands. The sun is high in the sky and he is thinking about his next visit to Lake Eyre – he believes winter is the best time to go. He seems eager to be there.

“When I’m in the sky, and I’m looking at this vastness of water, I can’t help think that soon it will be a salt lake again,” he concludes. “In the end, I believe it becomes about the richness of emptiness, a kind of a Chinese philosophy from the Tao in which emptiness is as full as fullness. And you may say to yourself, what the hell does that mean?  So I say to you that it’s like having a drinking vessel, and the use of the drinking vessel is its emptiness. Or you have a wheel with 30 spokes but the function of the wheel is the emptiness between the spokes. This is not a Western notion because what we believe is more dynamic and linear, but for me, I just keep going back to this beautiful idea that emptiness is as full as fullness.”


John Olsen, Lake Eyre: The Desert Sea shows at Metro Gallery, Armadale, until April 28


The Immediacy of the Actual for Paul Lockyer

By John Olsen, 2012

At Cooper Creek
spun down shook
Exchanged convivialitys
with a familiar friend
spun up again
Over the endless salt
Echoes of a cockatoos
and the despair of
a crows sigh.
Under the lake
A dream time spirit
Malevolent Kudimurka
Head of a kangaroo –
body of a snake
that allows
no place for man
Beat the muffled
Sing a sad song.
In a suspended
A mechanical Icarus
from the sky,
spin, spinning, spun,
    Then silence.
We remember them.



John Olsen, Towards Delmore Downs, Oil on canvas, 117 x 122 cm.

John Olsen, Cooper Creek, Oil on canvas, 92 x 123 cm




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