The Europe of his formative years and the country of his birth are inextricably linked in the portfolio – and soul – of this acclaimed artist.
1956: I was in Paris for about three months, studying at the etching studio of S. W. Hayter. It was my first overseas trip and it was a revelation – cathedrals, the Louvre, an entirely different cuisine. On the ship from Australia, I studied Hugo’s Teach Yourself French in Three Months but nobody understood what the hell I was saying because my pronunciation was ridiculous. So there I was in Paris and I was struggling, really struggling. My work was all over the place because I was trying to assimilate too quickly. In Montparnasse, I’d go to cafés and see that great sculptor, [Alberto] Giacometti, sitting there. I didn’t meet any of those famous artists; I wouldn’t presume, particularly with my language difficulties. Picasso, of course, spoke no English at all. But I found myself in a completely new world and it was quite wonderful for a little Aussie bleeder.
1956: After Paris, I went to Barcelona. Spain was still recovering from civil war so it was very poor and living was very, very cheap. I remember going to remarkable La Boqueria market, off La Rambla – it wasn’t about appetite, it was about abundance. I saw chickens immersed in saffron with their heads on and their feet suspended from the ceiling like they were flying. That’s pure surrealism. And aubergines had never entered my vocabulary! Spain had a big influence on me. I lived for two years in Deià, on Mallorca, in the same village as poet and writer Robert Graves. I managed to escape all contact with Australia. To feel that sense of isolation was just wonderful, even though I care immensely for Australia. It made all the difference to my life. When I left, I had a one-man show in Paris that was well received but I felt there was more to do in Australia for me and I was right. You’ve got to back your hunches.
1960: Despite all that I’d experienced, I was mindful that I have a proper linkage to this country compared with the Mediterranean world. I began to understand that Australia, from a white civilisation point of view, was to be completely rediscovered. There were few places in the world you could say that about. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Sydney Harbour, how it snakes in from the sea and passes under the Harbour Bridge. It’s full of pulsating life, it’s enigmatic and you’ve got those wonderful hills surrounding it. It’s like a beautiful big bath. ￼
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John Olsen: You Beaut Country, a retrospective of the artist’s seven-decade career, opens at the NGV Australia in Melbourne on 16 September. It’s on show until 12 February, when it will travel to Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales.