John Olsen: The You Beaut Country – Showing at NGV Australia


Portrait of John Olsen by Hugh Stewart © Hugh Stewart

“Art is not so much about talent as character. It’s what you are, the qualities of the person” said Australia’s national treasure John Olsen AO, OBE (b.1928 -), who is an artist renowned for his deep commitment and sensitivity to the natural environment,

John Olsen is well known for creating many iconic contemporary art works in a range of mediums, all of which have taken a prominent place in the history of Modernism in Australian art.


John Olsen’s studio by Hugh Stewart © Hugh Stewart

From Spring to Summer, September 16 to February 17, John Olsen: The You Beauty Country is an exhibition in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which will be on show in the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, revealing aspects of his artist’s practice, including his paintings, tapestries and ceramics.


Portrait of John Olsen by Hugh Stewart © Hugh Stewart

“John Olsen is one of Australia’s most distinguished artists. Traversing a lifetime of creativity, this exhibition will offer an extraordinary and in-depth insight into Olsen’s life and practice” said Director of the NGV Tony Ellwood.

During his lifetime John Olsen has travelled internationally and nationally. He knows Australia’s countryside intimately, his works providing a ‘spiritual and mystical’ insight into the evolution of Australian art, culture and character.

His confidence and optimism approach to his craft is an important aspect of his winning the Wynne Prize in 1969, the Sulman Prize in1989 and the Archibald Prize in 2005.

We could say that his service to the arts in Australia has been over his lifetime, incalculable. Now 88 years of age, John Olsen is like the great grandfather of Australian contemporary art, having developed a language in images that is all his own, once seen never forgotten.

John Olsen: The You Beaut Country is named for a series of works produced after returning to Australia from three years overseas in 1960, much of his time being spent in sunny Spain.


John Olsen born Australia 1928, lived in Europe 1956–60, 1965–67 Seafood paella 2007 oil on plywood (a-e) 245.0 x 612.0 cm (overall) Private collection © John Olsen, administered by Viscopy, Sydney

Coming home was an illuminating and enlightening experience for Olsen, as he found Sydney throbbing with life.

The sun shone a bright light with great clarity on beguiling ideas of rus in urbe at a time when his lifelong interest in our unique landscapes being linked to a unique Australian identity, began in earnest.

On three sheets of Masonite he painted his brilliant Spanish Encounter, which proved a heady experience for many in viewing this mighty work.

The largest work of Australian art produced to be eye catching in his day and to express that moment when Olsen realized he wanted to share his insight into Spanish culture with the rest of Australia, it is integral to his legend.

That great Australian commentator on art Betty Churcher AO (1931-2015) said she had ‘no hope of keeping up with the speed and energy that is trapped in that stunning painting’…

… ‘And long after we are all gone, it will remain a moment that will live forever’. *

07856 pic 042.tif

John Olsen, born Australia 1928, lived in Europe 1956–60, 1965–67 Salute to Cerberus 1965 oil on plywood 185.0 x 244.5 cm TarraWarra Museum and Art Gallery, Healesville, Victoria Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO 2001 © John Olsen, administered by Viscopy, Sydney

The colour, the textures, the web of enchantment it weaves reveals his reaction to enjoying a Spanish adventure.

This exhibition is all about revealing John Olsen the artist at 88 years of age, one who has lost none of his passion for capturing the spirit of Australian scenery.


John Olsen born Australia 1928, lived in Europe 1956–60, 1965–67 Lake Eyre 1975, oil on canvas, 214.0 x 200.0 cm, Private collection, © John Olsen, administered by Viscopy, Sydney

The works include those inspired by Australia’s largest and most famous Endorheic Lake, Kaati Thanda-Lake Eyre, which only occasionally fills to capacity.

John Olsen is represented in all Australian State galleries including the National Gallery of Australia. His works are also included in corporate and private collections throughout Australia and overseas.

olsen-tapestry-st-johns-cathedral-brisbaneJohn Olsen’s production of tapestries in 1963 in conjunction with the Portalegre Tapestry Workshop in Portugal are well known. He also had them made in France and then later with the Australian Tapestry Workshop after it was established.

This side of his art practice is much lesser known. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a tapestry signed John Olsen folded in the corner of a small room holding donated ‘art’ at St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane during my final days living in the precinct 2000- July 2005.

olson-signature-tapestry-st-johnsI was rearranging the art cupboard for the new Dean before I left the Cathedral when I discovered it. He quickly sent it off to Julian Bickersteth at International Conservation in Sydney to be cleaned and conserved.

According to Parish records, John Olsen had held an Exhibition – “The Child in us all” there 30/04-24/05/1976. As far as I know he gifted it to the Cathedral and it is still hanging on the walls.

It will be of interest to see the tapestries and ceramics displayed as an aspect of this exhibition, including the tapestry he collaborated with the ATW in 2014 to produce, appropriately named, Sun over the You Beaut Country.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016


John Olsen (designer) born Australia 1928, lived in Europe 1956–60, 1965–67 Tapecarias Portalegre Workshops, Portugal (manufacturer), est. 1946, Joie de vivre 1964–65, wool, edition of 6, 180.0 x 299.0 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased, 1965, © John Olsen, administered by Viscopy, Sydney

John Olsen: The You Beauty Country

September 16, 2016 – February 17, 2017
The Ian Potter Centre
NGV Australia

The exhibition is accompanied by a 232-page landmark publication, beautifully illustrated and featuring insightful essays on Olsen’s practice to date, available from the NGV design store for $39.95.


A suite of public programs will accompany John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, including talks by curators, academics, writers, other artists and creative minds to encourage new insights into John Olsen’s artwork, explore the broader influence of his work, and celebrate his extensive creative practice.

*Quote: Australian Notebooks: Betty Churcher



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.