If you are not an art lover the name John Olsen may have escaped you. But the National Gallery of Victoria is giving you the chance to make amends with its five months of free access to a huge display of this remarkable man’s strikingly individual view of the land around him – plus a few concepts from way out there in left field
IN SO many places you go in the old world you are forced to crank your head back to alarming angles to truly appreciate the art some long-forgotten prince or Pope demanded be painted on his ceiling – come nella Cappella Sistina.
The Apostolic Palace might be the Pope’s home, but your ticket to his chapel should cover the cost of physiotherapy or chiropractic (depending on your wont) to cope with the pain after you have spent an hour or two bouncing off walls with your eyes glued skyward.
As a child on school trips, when frustrated teachers tried, and invariably failed, to hammer some culture into the unresponsive heads of Geelong students, the one thing we got a kick out of was lying on the floor of the art gallery’s Great Hall and marvelling at all the coloured glass.
Fortunately the NGV has come a long way in the planning of its art shows and its current John Olsen exhibition, in the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Federation Square.
First, as I am no longer a schoolboy, it is on the ground floor – no stairs, no steps, no hassles.
Second, some of the most stunning exhibits appear on the ceiling – of course. Under which the NGV has graciously installed very well placed and designed chairs into which you can sink, lie back and absorb the glory of Olsen’s spectacular sunburst of colour also known as Summer
in the you beaut country (although getting out of them would prove a tad trickier).
But which also explained the name of the exhibition – John Olsen: The You Beaut Country.
Now I’m not going to insist Olsen really enjoyed the ’60s more than most but if you check out what he was doing in the ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ decade you get the feeling that if he wasn’t good friends with Tim Leary, at the very least they must have been pen pals.
It is has got Sergeant Pepper (on steroids) splashed all over it and explains why so many people who have Olsen ceiling art have moved it to their walls – like me they are now too old to wander around looking at ceilings.
Whichever way you look at him Olsen is one of Australia’s greatest living artists, recognised for, in the words of NGV, his energetic and distinctive painting style and in particular for his lyrical depiction of the landscape.
He is a major figure in the story of Australian art and his unique and sensual pictorial language presents a very personal view of the world (tell me that doesn’t sound like the ’60s, or even the ’70s).
Today Olsen weighs in at 88 years old, and he’s still painting.
Drawing not just on his love affair with the land of his birth; but on a variety of influences from the aforementioned old world – especially, he would later admit, Spain.
His You beaut country series, which followed his return home after three years abroad began what would be a lifelong interest in representing the landscape and Australian identity.
Joined here by his more recent works, prints and watercolours alike; including an obvious fascination with the miraculous, and repeated, refilling of Lake Eyre.
For an old coot there’s no doubting his dedication and his productivity, the evolution of his work is laid out – and suspended – there for all to see.
Summer in the you beaut country, might have been the first of his ceiling works but it was followed by a small group of ceiling and wall commissions, most of which Olsen had the foresight to paint in situ on removable composition board panels so they seamlessly moved from overhead to hanging on walls.
His largest wall work, Salute to Five Bells, 1972–73, is located in the Sydney Opera House vestibule and measures a whopping 21m long.
Most of the others are in private collections, and currently on loan to NGV in Federation Square.
You have absolutely no excuse for not soaking up the blazing talent of this man – entry is free and the show runs until February 12.
And if you can’t find a favourite you must be incredibly finicky – apart from the ceiling sunburst keep an eye out for the other one I would have been prepared to slip under my jumper, but for its size.
I mean who calls a painting Seafood Paella and then smears it 6m along a wall?
I too went through the ’60s but clearly was in the wrong part of town – because I remember them pretty clearly.
And armed with my box of 72 Derwent pencils (the benefit of being upper middle class) never came close to anything you’ll find hanging on the walls here.