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Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia born 1928

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

Butcher's cart Deià de Mallorca

2010 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on composition board
Primary Insc: signed and dated, lower right in blue and brown oil: "John/ Olsen/ 0'10". titled: " 'The/ Butcher's/ cart'/ Mallorca. "
Dimensions: unframed 1997 h x 3000 w x 90 d mm ; weight 78 kg
Acknowledgement: Acquired with the Founding Donors' Fund 2010
Accession No: NGA 2010.561
Image rights: © John Olsen. Licensed by Viscopy

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John Olsen is one of Australia’s most accomplished artists. His work came to the fore in the 1960s with paintings such as the National Gallery’s Sydney sun 1965 and Art Gallery of New South Wales’s Spanish encounter 1960. When these works were first seen in Australia they were a revelation. In particular, Olsen had discovered a fresh way of conceiving of place where observed realities and internally felt responses could be distilled and conveyed simultaneously.

Half a century after Spanish encounter, Olsen reveals the ongoing inspiration of Spain in his powerful and engaging Butcher’s cart, Deia de Mallorca 2010, his first painting relating to Spanish culture to enter the national art collection. Olsen had received private support to travel to Europe in 1956. The most lasting impact on him came from living in Spanish villages, principally Deia. He was struck by the peasant culture surrounding him, by ritual and processions and by specialist tradespeople.

In Butcher’s cart, Deia de Mallorca, Olsen reflects on the poverty of civil war-ravaged Spain and the idea of making more with less, like the rudimentary ingredients of a Spanish meal that could be transformed into magnificent paella. He notes that meat on carts was displayed in large chunks, no matter which part it came from. ‘The resulting scene had a primitive, animalistic vitality about it. I’m reminded that all art is memory of old-age things.’

The image of the butcher’s cart becomes a symbolic vehicle for transporting the baggage of life. Enmeshed in painterly looping lines connected with the cart are ‘friends’ that come along on the journey: the dog that rides on top, the cat in the lower left (a reference to Olsen’s many studio cats), the rabbit on the right (possibly destined for the pot) and various people. Olsen himself appears in a self-portrait in the lower right, wearing his artist’s beret. Butcher’s cart, Deia de Mallorca is among the most outstanding paintings by Olsen in recent years—a remarkable achievement by this octogenarian artist.

Deborah Hart
Senior Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture post-1920
in artonview, issue 64, summer 2010

in artonview, issue 64, summer 2010