John Olsen’s career celebrated in major retrospective


The colours of the Australian landscape flow like connecting tributaries through John Olsen’s oeuvre. Even when depicting the inhospitable terrain of the Simpson Desert or the salt-encrusted waters of Lake Eyre, Olsen’s work teems with the suggestion of vibrant life.

This defining aspect of Olsen’s long and much-celebrated career is explored in over 100 works for the National Gallery of Victoria’s survey exhibition, The You Beaut Country.

Comprehensive in scope, the exhibition features a selection of Olsen’s iconic landscape paintings as well as examples of lesser-known works in ceramic and tapestry.

“It begins with one of Olsen’s first exhibited works, a still-life painting from 1951, through to the present day with a work that he completed in early July 2016,” says co-curator David Hurlston.

David Moore, John Olsen, Woollahra, Sydney, 1962, printed 2000 gelatin silver photograph, 44.0 x 72.1 cm. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. The series David Moore: From Face to Face was acquired by gift of the artist and financial assistance from Timothy Fairfax AM and L Gordon Darling AC CMG 2001 © David Moore Estate.

Known for his portrayal of the landscape, Olsen favours aerial views that reveal the patterns carved by nature and the changing seasons. Abstract yet highly evocative, Olsen’s works maintain a distinct visual language of squiggly lines, dots and expressive bursts of colour that, when arranged by the artist, move from chaos to a symphony of colour and movement.

It is a language that Olsen has successfully transferred to other mediums, and the exhibition includes three tapestries completed between 1965 and 1989, most notably the spectacular Joie de Vivre, 1964–1965.

The Terry Whelan Suite, a 200-piece dinner service Olsen was privately commissioned to embellish in 1970, has also been made available. “Displayed in the exhibition on a banquet table, it will be an unexpected surprise for many,” Hurlston says. “The vessels were wheel-thrown by potter Robert Mair and decorated by Olsen at Creswick, Victoria.”

A valuable insight into Olsen’s practice, The You Beaut Country also features 16 diaries and notebooks, offering the viewer an in-depth and personal view into the artist’s thought processes and working methods.

The You Beaut Country
John Olsen
National Gallery of Victoria
16 September – 12 February

Preview Words by Briony Downes