I recall coming into the Harbour in the early morning after being in Europe for several years, the surrounding hills seemed to cradle the sun’s light – like a benevolent bath, bubbling and effervescent. [There was] the image of things growing, pullulating from the sun’s source. John Olsen1
Sydney sun reveals John Olsen’s innovative approach to painting and his imaginative response to place that came to the fore in the 1960s. Compared with his earlier more intimate work, The bicycle boys, here he demonstrates a much greater confidence not only in painting what is seen but also what is felt and experienced.
During the mid-to-late 1950s, Olsen was endeavouring to discover what he described as ‘a new kind of figuration’.2 In essence, he wanted to go beyond literal representation without abandoning imagery and content. In the 1956 catalogue for the Contemporary Australian paintings: Pacific loans exhibition, Olsen noted that his painting took on a particular abstract quality because he was seeking a ‘direct mystical experience’. ‘The thing which I always endeavour to express is an animistic quality — a certain mystical throbbing throughout nature.’3
Of particular significance to Olsen’s efforts to bridge the gap between abstraction and figuration was his interest in Zen Buddhism. As he noted in his 1958 journal, ‘Zen realises that our nature is at one with objective nature … in the sense that we live in nature and nature lives in us.’4 For Olsen, texts such as DT Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture and Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery allied this idea with an intuitive response in painting process, ‘attuning the mind to the utmost fluidity or mobility to acquire the spontaneity of natural growth.’5 In the early 1960s, Olsen became interested in the notion of our interdependence with the natural world and this became central to his art.
In 1960, Olsen returned to Australia after three years in Europe, spent predominantly in Spain. Along with a range of artistic sources which he had encountered in Europe, the environment of Sydney provided a rich basis of inspiration. After his experience of living in an old Mediterranean culture, he found the local environment magically vibrant and alive. He was struck by the brightness of the light, the fluctuating topography of the harbour and the robust energy of urban life. In the ensuing period, Olsen became closely identified with the city. As Laurie Thomas wrote in the introduction to Olsen’s Opera House journal, Salute to Five Bells, Olsen ‘has created Sydney – its harbour, life, vulgarity, beauty, movement – in the way that Drysdale created the outback.’6
As opposed to the Renaissance conception of perspectival space, Olsen wanted to create ‘an all-at-once world’.7 As he later wrote in his Opera House journal: ‘I like to be in the middle of a buzzing honey pot of images changing and evolving ... I like painting to have a human unpredictability.’8 In works such as Sydney sun, the use of multiple viewpoints – incorporating what is above and below, inside and outside, the microcosm and macrocosm – also has affinities with Indigenous art which Olsen greatly admired.
Sydney sun was originally conceived as a ceiling painting. This is one of the most significant examples of the small number of ceiling paintings that Olsen created in the 1960s. The first public viewing of the ceilings occurred in exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne in 1965. Bernard Smith wrote:
At South Yarra Gallery [Olsen’s] sumptuous and refulgent colour pours down upon us from the ceilings and walls, a resplendent exhibition which takes vitalism and colouristic exuberance about as far as it can go.9
Sydney sun is an optimistic, life-enhancing work that encompasses the exuberant vitality of place. Beyond specificities of location, the painting also has universal implications. It conveys the artist’s passionate, imaginative response to the natural world. From the powerful life-giving energy of the golden orb, the rays become exploratory, meandering tentacles, at one with the plant forms and ecstatic scatter of pollen, at one with the various irrational creatures that have come under its pulsating spell.
1John Olsen 2000, letter sent to National Gallery of Australia.
2Comments by John Olsen, 2 November 1986 in Barry Pearce ‘Direction 1’ in Art and Australia vol.24 no.4 1978 pp.497–504 (p.503).
3John Olsen in Contemporary Australian Paintings: Pacific Loans Exhibition of board Orient Line S.S. Orcades Sydney: Orient Line 1956 p.17.
4John Olsen journal 1958 (as cited in Deborah Hart John Olsen Sydney: Craftsman House 2000).
6John Olsen Salute to Five Bells: John Olsen’s Opera House Journal Sydney: Angus and Robertson 1973 pp.1–4 (p.3).
7John Olsen in Deborah Hart John Olsen Sydney: Craftsman House 2000 p.50.
8John Olsen Salute to Five Bells: John Olsen’s Opera House Journal Sydney: Angus and Robertson 1973 p.47.
9Melbourne Age 16 June 1965.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002