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Salute the Sun

Sydney Morning Herald – Spectrum
June 24 2013

Ali Gripper

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In his twilight years, John Olsen is taking on one of the biggest challenges of his career. Ali Gripper steps inside his studio to find an exuberant tribute to the Australian landscape.

It is autumn in the southern highlands and John Olsen is painting in a flurry of golden yellow, crimson and vermilion. The 85-year-old artist's latest commission is monumental, even by his standards. At eight metres by six metres, it does not fit onto one canvas. Instead, Olsen paints directly onto marine ply panels on the floor of what used to be a car workshop. The mural, soon to be installed in the foyer of a new office tower in Melbourne, weighs almost 700 kilograms. It is Olsen's largest painting since his 1973 tribute to Kenneth Slessor's poem Five Bells, for the foyer of the Sydney Opera House.

''It's so wonderful to be working on something this large at this point in my life,'' Olsen says on the phone as we arrange an interview. ''I'm so pleased I've got it to this stage, before it gets too cold in the winter.''

I'm no different from Michelangelo, trying to please the pope. The brief for this commission was simply that it had to have the 'wow' factor.  

Despite open heart surgery last year, and a series of blackouts and heart flutters slowing him down, Olsen initially planned to hire a cherry picker to hover over the painting, his brushes taped to long wooden poles. In the end, though, he chose a more cautious approach. He walks over the boards in bright woollen socks, sometimes holding onto his assistant, local artist Carlos Barrios.

Artist John Olsen stands with his latest completed artwork in his Robertson studio.

Light years: John Olsen walks the boards of The King Sun. Photo: Wolter Peeters

We meet on a cool day at Olsen's home on the outskirts of Bowral, where, at this time of year, the oaks and maples are ablaze in red and yellow. Olsen is at the glass front door, sporting his signature beret, walking cane in hand.


His home is perched beside a lake, with stables for his wife Katharine's horses to one side.

'''Happy wife, happy life' is my motto!'' he says, leading the way inside. Everywhere you turn there are paintings, sculptures and poetry books.

The inner sanctum of Olsen's studio is about the size of a small apartment. The ceilings are high, and an entire wall is filled with storage racks for his paintings. Underfloor heating keeps it warm. Through the windows you can see ducks swimming on the lake, framed by willow trees. ''It's just magnificent, isn't it?'' he says. ''Other times I've seen swamp hens, cormorants, swans, pelicans [and] fish jumping. We absolutely love it here.''

Olsen has lived in Sydney, Adelaide, the Blue Mountains, and Rydal in central-west NSW, to name a few places. He and Katharine have been in the southern highlands for 14 years. ''It takes years living in one place to realise, 'This is where I am', don't you think?'' he says. ''And besides, I've got no more moves left in me.''

But there is no time to linger; it is 9.30 in the morning and Olsen can't wait to start work. He still paints regularly, something he plans to do for the rest of his life. He is an early riser. ''You're either a fowl or an owl, and I'm a fowl,'' he says. He usually drinks a pot of tea – ''first aid'' – and inspires himself by reading poetry. This morning it was W.H. Auden. '''Stop the clocks, give the dog a juicy bone' … that's a marvellous one,'' he says.

Olsen's own studio is too small for the commission so we are off to a friend's home, that of the former BBC filmmaker Tony Williams and his wife Anna Hewgill, who are making a documentary about the mural. Olsen still drives but today Barrios is at the wheel of Olsen's navy blue Jaguar. They swerve along at 100 km/h, through a landscape reminiscent of the English countryside, interspersed with swathes of rainforest.

At the converted studio, about the size of a tennis court, Olsen leans his cane against a chair, slips off his shoes and glides out onto the centre of the work. ''Here comes the bride!'' he says, holding onto Barrios' forearm.

The King Sun, as the mural spread out on the floor is called, is inimitably Olsen: a fabulous, dappled map of, as his son, Tim, puts it, ''lines going out for a walk''- or in this case, a tango or waltz. On one edge are the little green frogs that often appear in his work. ''Oh, look at this green, it's just delicious!'' Olsen says. ''Oh green, I love you …''

Barrios hands him brushes and small pots of paint like a caddy handing a golfer his clubs. All is quiet, except for the sound of Olsen's brush sweeping across the boards, punctuated by loud bangs as he adds dots and splotches.

Olsen once told the Herald that artists can ''show people how to look, how to see … We must look at the landscape not as real estate, but as a place of enlightenment and magic.''

The statement certainly applies to The King Sun. ''People have so much materially, but they are so depressed, or are so anxious; it's the modern malaise,'' Olsen says. ''The communication revolution we are in at the moment is a very confusing era. All things digital are dominant and quite a lot of it is a kind of pollution. I wanted to paint something that reminds people of the primary, of being back to nature, of how the sun finds its way into the darkest of places.

''The sun is very important to Australians; it's so welcoming, so optimistic. You can understand the Egyptians and Incas who believed that the sun was God.''

Many regard Olsen as the artist who has, perhaps more than anyone else, captured the essence of the Australian landscape. He has travelled and lived in various parts of Australia, often for months on end. Camping at Lake Eyre in the 1970s, he watched it fill with water for the first time in decades and observed the proliferation of life that followed. It inspired much work and led to a keen interest in conservation.

''You can't really understand the vastness of it until you're out there,'' Olsen says. ''It's so radically different in scale to England. You can't really grasp the overview of it, the whole process of nature and how it all connects until you're out in it.

''We've got a real crisis on our hands if we just let the coal seam gas people go anywhere they want with a cavalier sort of attitude. They have to be responsible about it and listen to people. It is rather unspoiled out there, you know.''

Deborah Hart, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Australia, believes Olsen's love of the Australian landscape stems partly from returning to Sydney after a scholarship to Spain in his youth.

''It must have seemed so magically alive after being steeped in an old European society. He saw it with fresh eyes; he was struck by the incredible light, the energy of Sydney, how nature folds itself around us, even in the city.''

The impact of moving from Newcastle to Bondi Beach as a young boy ''never really left him either,'' she says. ''You see it in the way he paints our marine life with such joy and exuberance.

''That Renaissance idea is very important to him, about the interconnectedness of things, plants, animals, humans, and the sun being such a unifying force. The sun is a favourite topic of his … it's that Mediterranean attitude that life has many challenges but that it's important to strive towards happiness. One of the things John always has the capacity to do is to show us how to be joyful.''

Olsen's discipline is also legendary. Tim, who represents his father at his Olsen Irwin Gallery in Woollahra, says Olsen is ready to step into the studio every day. ''He always knew that talent was not enough,'' Tim says.

''I'm no different from Michelangelo, trying to please the pope,'' Olsen says. ''The brief for this commission was simply that it had to have the 'wow' factor. I think about 13,000 people are going to walk past it every day.

''It needed to be reassuring and happy with a spirit of youth and optimism. Well, that suits me.''

He still makes mistakes, he admits, ''but experience had told me not to worry too much about them.

''Don't get depressed about it, don't fret, just let it go, have a day's rest, and come back to it later.''

And he still has days when inspiration will not come. But then, suddenly, thrillingly, it happens. As a work progresses, he says, he almost ''becomes what I'm painting … The understanding of what you're painting deepens as you go along. It becomes more than a design. I become, before it, a child of God.

''When I started [The King Sun], the scale of it nearly knocked my socks off, but then I immediately put in the positive form in that negative space.

''I just let the empty space talk to me. You start out with instructions, but then it takes on a life of its own. It's almost like a question and answer: Is it this way? No. Is it that way? Yes.''

Tim says he is ''absolutely in admiration of his courage. He won't take on work if he feels he's going to let anybody down. He still has that focus, that dexterity and an inner sense of solace and wisdom you see in the later work of Monet or Lloyd Rees.

''He reminds me of Picasso, with both that spiritual and physical strength.''

After we meet for the first time, and before he finishes the commission, John has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital to be fitted with a pacemaker, which he regards as ''a kind of miracle''. Less than a fortnight later, although yet to gain his full strength, he is determined to return to the studio one last time to sign the mural.

His recovery is boosted by the news that a previous work, The Sydney Sun, is off to London in September as part of an exhibition of Australian painting at the Royal Academy. ''Isn't it incredible?'' Olsen says. ''At last! It's so good for people to know Australia is not just about gum trees. It's the light we have here, and the sun.''

As Olsen walks slowly towards the corner of the painting and bends to sign it, Barrios stands close, attentive to his every move. This will probably be one of Olsen's last large works. ''Hallelujah!'' he says, as he lays down the paintbrush. ''That's that, then.''

Olsen sits down to gaze at his work. When he won the Archibald Prize in 2005 for Self Portrait Janus Faced, he said that Janus ''has the ability to look backwards and forwards and, when you get to my age, you have a hell of a lot to think about.''

The King Sun has made him equally reflective. ''Artists don't retire; they just gently or violently fade away,'' he says. ''I'm just one aspect of the whole organic part of life, along with the trees and the plants and the lake that is so beautiful … All one hopes for is that the end is speedy.''

Olsen has said that his creative life and frequent moves are a search for meaning. Has he found what he was looking for? ''Oh, I think I'm getting close,'' he says.