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John Henry Olsen (1928–2023)

by Matthew Westwood

from Australian

John Olsen, by Greg Weight, 1997

John Olsen, by Greg Weight, 1997

National Library of Australia, 21100990

John Olsen, whose large canvases teemed with colour, sunlight and abundant life, has died at age 95.

He is known especially for his monumental painting Salute to Five Bells, commissioned for the northern foyer of the Sydney Opera House.

A vast nocturnal seascape against a deep purple ground, it describes Sydney Harbour at night and is a response to Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells.

Olsen said he wanted the painting to evoke the magic of a summer night on the Harbour, catching the ferry and falling in love. He described his discovery of Slessor’s poem as a gift.

“In life, you have to be lucky, you have to be a hunter-gatherer, and I fell upon this wonderful poem,” he said. “I have to search for that magical blue of Sydney Harbour, with that phosphorescent light from ferries and ships that are passing by.”

The painting is to be included in Lighting of the Sails: Life ­Enlivened, a vast projection of Olsen’s work on to the sails of the Opera House that will happen during May’s Vivid festival.

Sadly, he did not live to see his art honoured in this very public way, above the water of his beloved harbour.

Born in Newcastle in 1928 and educated in Sydney, Olsen was the last of a generation of artists that included Charles Blackman and Fred Williams.

He held his first one-man exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in 1955 and the next year arranged an early exhibition of Australian abstraction, Direction I, although he did not consider his work as ­abstract.

The largeness of life, its sensory pleasures and intellectual stimulation fed his appetite. Living in Majorca for several years, he embraced the Mediterranean lifestyle and cuisine. He loved to cook, entertain and read poetry.

His feel for line was organic and exuberant, extending across a canvas like tendrils.

Frogs and other aquatic creatures were a favourite motif.

Paintings by Olsen are in major Australian galleries. The National Gallery of Australia has his large triptych Sydney Sun, painted as a ceiling decoration. The Art Gallery of NSW, where he was a trustee, has a holding of his works, including his triptych Spanish Encounter, and another painting inspired by Slessor, Five Bells.

He was honoured with a retrospective in 2016, The You Beaut Country, seen in Melbourne and Sydney. He won the Wynne Prize for landscape twice, and the ­Archibald Prize in 2005 for Self-­portrait Janus Faced.

He continued to paint well into his later years, enjoying his status as the elder statesman of Australian art. In 2013, he was commissioned for the largest work he had attempted, King Sun, 6m x 8m, for Collins Square in Melbourne.

In 2020, Olsen won a court ­battle against the daughter of his fourth wife, Katharine Howard, to recover $2.2m. The court found Karen Mentink had unduly pressured her mother before her death to transfer the money to her.

Olsen was appointed an OBE in 1977, and made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2001.

He is survived by son Tim, a gallery owner, and daughter ­Louise, co-founder of Dinosaur Designs.

Original publication

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Citation details

Matthew Westwood, 'Olsen, John Henry (1928–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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