John OLSEN, The bicycle boys Enlarge 1 /1


Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia born 1928

  • Europe 1956-60
  • Spain, Portugal 1965-67

The bicycle boys 1955 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: signed l.r., oil "John Olsen", not dated
Dimensions: 92.5 h x 77.2 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1969
Accession No: NGA 69.2
Image rights: © John Olsen. Licensed by Viscopy

The bicycle boys appears alive with promise – full of youthful energy and the transition of becoming. Later on, John Olsen would take up Paul Klee’s idea of ‘taking line for a walk’ with gusto. At this point, in 1955, his line is still more tentative: defining particular shapes, circling the front bicycle wheel and dividing up planes of colour. There is a sense of the artist himself edging towards a new way of painting, yet still carrying with him aspects of John Passmore’s teaching in relation to the figure, and perhaps thinking of Vittorio De Sica’s film The bicycle thief (1948). This explorative melding of abstraction and figuration would become more confidently expressed in Olsen’s works of the 1960s, such as Sydney sun. Imbued with luminous colour and an underlying poetic sensibility, this work nevertheless represents an important stage on the artist’s journey.

This painting is one of a small group of works that Olsen undertook around the mid-1950s. The idea for using the subject of ‘bicycle boys’ in his drawings and paintings was in part based on his impressions of cyclists he saw on visits to Centennial Park in Sydney. As he said in an interview with James Gleeson in 1979:

I used to go down to Centennial Park ... they had a lot of bicycle riding. And I was rather fascinated by the sort of difference of the human body weight to the lightness of the bicycle. It had a kind of airiness about it. And they used to sort of ride up and down hills; and the final moments of a race … the winner would arrive and be absolutely totally exhausted.  … and they used to embrace each other and still there was that strange kind of balance thing. … I guess it sort of stands as a sort of disparity and airiness of human rejoicing with the peculiar-ness of the bicycle shapes themselves.1

Deborah Hart

1John Olsen, interview with James Gleeson, Australian National Gallery, 9 April 1979 (transcript p.1).

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