A voyage to the You Beaut Country with John Olsen

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Seafood Paella (2007)

Where would you go if you only had one day in Melbourne?  That’s the question we had to ask ourselves before a whistle-stop tour of the city last month.  We were staying with friends about halfway between Melbourne’s central business district and the Yarra Valley region.  The reason for our fleeting visit? A wedding.  An eye-watering, breathtaking, totally worth the sleepless 36 hour flight, ultimate destination wedding!

When you’re travelling to the other side of the world and you’re limited by time (and budget) you have to focus on what really matters to you.  For me the answer was simple; to experience Australian art.  As soon as our feet touched the pavement of Federation Square we made a beeline for the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre – “The home of Australian art.”

There’s an amazing collection of Indigenous and non-Indigenous art at the gallery, spanning from the colonial period right up to the present day.  A fascinating exhibition of Sally Gabori titled ‘Land Of All’  is also currently on loan to NGV.  It features over thirty of her works; including some small-scale canvases from her early paintings in 2005 as well as many large-scale collaborative works with the women of Kaiadilt for which she became renowned.  Well worth a visit before the exhibition continues on its tour from 29th January!  But there was one exhibition in particular I was just itching to see…

Bruce Armstrong Sculptures at NGV Australia

‘The You Beaut Country’  a collection of works by John Olsen, one of Australia’s greatest living artists.

We inched down the private corridor clutching our tickets before entering the first of seven sensational gallery spaces.  The exhibition begins with works from Olsen’s formative years as a student of abstraction and follows the development of his singular landscape vision before going onto his major works of the 60’s, 70’s and beyond.

Olsen describes his work as “an exploration of the totality of landscape.”  Capturing the spirit a place with his distinctive painting style Olsen’s dynamic yet sensual pictorial language invites us to experience his unique view of the world and his beloved Australia.

Bruce Armstrong Sculptures at NGV Australia

“I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me” – John Olsen.

Many of Olsen’s works have been executed and intended for exhibition as ceiling paintings.  As we progressed through to the second gallery space we were able to recline comfortably on purpose built benches and view Olsen’s ‘Summer in the you beaut country’ (1962) and ‘Sydney Sun’ (1965) as they were originally conceived.   

I was mesmerised by the vibrancy of Sydney Sun.’  Rays of lights pulse through the landscape, entwining with the plants and creatures that thrive under its mighty orb. Olsen believed the popularity of this painting was              “…because Australians are born under the sun and because of that light, we see the world differently. Life is so alive under the Australian sun…”

Bruce Armstrong Sculptures at NGV Australia

“He who speaks of art speaks of poetry.” – John Olsen.

It’s clear from this exhibition that throughout his life Olsen has been passionate about literature, poetry in particular, of which references can be found in many of the works and journals also on display.  W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney have all made their mark on the artist.

‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’  was originally exhibited as one of Olsen’s ceiling works in 1984 under the title ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’  after the poem by Dylan Thomas.  However, following the exhibition Olson continued to work on the piece and decided to change the title to ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’  which is a line from William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’.  In stark contrast Olsen’s painting ‘Nightfall, when wattle stains the doubting heart’ (1980) is a nocturnal landscape based on the Wagga Wagga region and inspired by the poem ‘Terra Australis’  by Australian poet James McAuley.  With its dark watery depths and cool hues of the night, scattered with pinpricks of yellow, the piece is far more sombre in mood than his works of previous decades.

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Spring Frogs II (2008)

In 1971 Olsen was invited to join a film production team on a series of documentaries focusing on Australia’s wildlife.  The experience intensified Olsen’s instinctive connection with the natural world and thereafter depictions of nature such as pelicans and frogs became a recurring feature in his work.

The exhibition continues onto Olsen’s more recent works including those inspired by the phenomena of Lake Eyre.  “When full, Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest freshwater lake and teems with bird, fish and animal life. As the waters evaporate and it begins to recede it becomes progressively saltier, eventually returning to a dry saltpan where most forms of life are unable to survive… There it is and there it isn’t.”

You can see that throughout his career Olsen has experimented with a variety of mediums including tapestry, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture.  Whilst famous for his landscapes, Olsen’s work reflects his many other passions inspired by the cultures he experienced whilst travelling in Europe for a number of years.  My favourite piece from the exhibition was Olsen’s ‘Seafood Paella’ (2007); an enormous five panel canvas that at first glance resembles a gargantuan sun ejecting masses of solar flares.  However, on closer inspection you can see peas, squids and chickens all tossed together in an explosive celebration of this delicious Spanish dish.

Bruce Armstrong Sculptures at NGV Australia

“I’ve learned that life isn’t about travelling from peak to peak; life is the ability to travel in the valleys as well.” – John Olsen.

The collection celebrates an artist who at 88 years young is still as passionate about his art and the subjects which inspire him as the day he first put brush to canvas.  On leaving the exhibition we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the nearby botanical gardens, another oasis of calm in clamour of a growing city.  That is until we got caught in a torrential rainstorm and were forced to shelter under the branches of a large oak tree along with a number of other surprised passers-by.  After the showers died down we made a break for Hosier Lane, Melbourne’s famous graffiti street, and had just enough time to visit the charming Anna Schwartz Gallery which is currently home to an incredible instillation ‘Absent Bodies’  by Chiharu Shiota. Reflecting on the day’s events I feel humbled by the richness of Olsen’s experience and satisfied that I have fulfilled my own desire to see great Australian art in the country of its origin.

‘The You Beaut Country’  will be exhibiting at the NGV Ian Potter Centre until 12th February before moving to the Art Gallery of New South Wales from the 10th March until the 12th of June 2017.

Amy Wiles

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Squid in its own ink (2015) 

(Photographs courtesy of NGV)

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