Culture / People

Celebrated Australian artist John Olsen dies aged 95

john olsen

John Olsen, one of Australia's most prolific and influential artists, has passed away aged 95. The painter died surrounded by family, including his son, gallery owner and art dealer, Tim Olsen, on Tuesday evening.

Known best for his landscape paintings, which altered the way audiences viewed Australian terrain, John Olsen was often thought of as a renaissance man, wearing his signature beret and dabbling in ceramics, tapestry and printmaking, with a deep love of food and poetry, also.

Famous for stating "artists are born, not made" after receiving the Order of Australia in 2001, for John Olsen, artmaking was a form of compulsion and he continued painting well into his tenth decade. He will be remembered as the last of a generation of Australian greats, which includes peers like Arthur Boyd, Judy Cassab, Charles Blackman, Russell Drysdale and Margaret Olley.

Born in Newcastle in 1928 as the eldest of two children, John Olsen grew up during the Great Depression and left St Joseph’s College in Hunters Hill at just 15 to work a slew of jobs before eventually finding work as a cartoonist. This set Olsen on a path towards art, attending first Dattilo-Rubbo’s Art School before enrolling into the Julian Ashton School in 1946 and later, East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School).


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A post shared by John Olsen (@johnolsenartist)

Olsen self-described as "endlessly restless" and he spent large chunks of his career travelling the globe, flitting from Paris to Spain, before eventually returning home to the Australian landscape he so deeply admired. He was married a total of four times, and would have two children with his second wife, artist Valerie Strong. He is survived by Tim Olsen and his daughter Louise Olsen, co-founder of popular resin jewellery and homewares brand Dinosaur Designs.

Speaking to ABC Melbourne radio, Tim Olsen said his father's death is "a great loss to Australia and I'm just overwhelmed by how many people have been moved by this, the messages just keep flying through my phone."

With a career spanning seven decades, John Olsen has won the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes, the former of which he described as a "chook raffle" in 1990. But perhaps his best known work is his mural on display in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House, Salute to Five Bells, which is a tribute to the famous poem by Kenneth Slessor and was finished in 1973.


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A post shared by John Olsen (@johnolsenartist)

"It may be peculiar, but I’m an eternal optimist," John Olsen told RUSSH in 2019. "I just think that you’ve got the seed, which you plant in the earth, and you’ve got the stem going up. Then you’ve got the lovely flower, which isn’t related to the seed or the stem – but it’s the optimism of the seed that makes the flower. Because nature is optimistic."

A tribute to John Olsen's career will be projected across the Sydney Opera House sails next month during Vivid Sydney festival.

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Images: @johnolsenartist