Poet of the brush John Olsen passes

The preeminent Australian artist has died aged 95.

Words: Erin Irwin

John Olsen AO OBE has died this week aged 95, having lived a life marked by an ongoing passion for the Australian landscape. Winner of the Archibald prize in 2005 and creator of many iconic works including Salute to Five Bells, situated in the Sydney Opera House, the artist has been hugely influential within the Australian art world – his 60-year long career is set to be immortalised on the Opera House’s sails at Vivid next month.

Born in 1928 in Newcastle, NSW, Olsen attended several art schools in Australia before spending many years honing his practice across Europe. The artist returned to Sydney for good in 1960, creating a large body of works that are represented in many important public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, as well as each state gallery. He is especially well known for his representations of Lake Eyre in South Australia.

His son Tim Olsen of Olsen Gallery in Sydney describes his aesthetic as possessing “joyful immediacy”. Speaking of his father, who was represented by the gallery, Olsen had said “He changed the very essence of what modern landscape painting is by shrinking the sky, turning his back on conventional geometry, speaking his own language and always returning to the egg-yolk magnetic energy of the sun… It is a rare privilege to grow from infancy to maturity within this vast body of work.”

Olsen was appointed an Officer of the British Empire in 1993, and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2001, alongside receiving a Centenary Medal. In addition to his Archibald win, he also won the Wynne Prize in 1969 and 1985, as well as the Sulman Prize in 1989. He has been the subject of many exhibitions, including his retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in 2016.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has responded to the news stating “we were so lucky to have him”.

“John Olsen was a giant who never lost the twinkle in his eye. A man of talent, charisma, generosity and humility, he was a poet of the brush”.

This article was posted 14 April 2023.

Image: John Olsen, 2016. Photograph: Mim Stirling. Courtesy: the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


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