Important Australian + International Fine Art
28 April 2010

John Olsen

born 1928

watercolour and pastel on paper

100.0 x 94.0 cm

signed and dated lower left: John / Olsen / 97

$40,000 - 60,000
Sold for $45,600 (inc. BP) in Auction 14 - 28 April 2010, Melbourne

Private collection, Melbourne

Catalogue text

John Olsen is a master watercolourist as shown in Desert Lake, Kimberley, 1997. Here is the same fluidity of medium as in his oils, lyrically translucent or built up in a series of washes, sometimes overlaid with pastel for greater effect, while the intricacy and lively boldness of line also captures the viewer's attention. In looking at an Olsen painting such as Desert Lake, Kimberley, you experience both the artist's visual and emotional response to the landscape. He achieves this mainly through his engaging style and extension of his lively personality into the painting. He often adds a particular image, word or line - in this painting, the shadow of an aeroplane that acts as a metaphorical link. Miniscule in the vastness of the landscape, it complements the witty meanderings of his line, restless and vital. There is also that characteristic Olsen informality, encouraged as much by the off-centre placement of the lake, as the casualness of the whole composition. The curve of water to one side features in other Olsen works of the time, especially the oil, Bathurst Butter, 1999, which Olsen gave to his wife on their tenth wedding anniversary.

Olsen's fascination with the aerial view enables him to give his landscapes breadth and spaciousness - the sight, as well as the feel of the Australian outback. As the eye ascends the picture plane of Desert Lake, Kimberley, it is brought back to 'reality' by the abiding horizon line of the conventional landscape format and the field of blue sky. A device also used in the painting Road to Bathurst, 1997, and many other works, the flatness achieved through the shallowness of the picture field is contrasted with the illusion of depth in the sky. Map-like, the aerial view details the form of the land and reflections in the lake, of Olsen's ability to capture the sense of long-awaited desert rain, and in other watercolours, of tropical damp. The folds of the landscape in Desert Lake, Kimberley are reminiscent of Sidney Nolan's central Australian landscapes of 1950, one seen from above, the other in profile.

The year 1997, from which this watercolour dates, was like so many others a significant one for Olsen, especially for the publication of his autobiography, Drawn from Life. This followed Deborah Hart's fine monograph published by Craftsman House in 1991, and later the appropriately titled Teeming with Life: John Olsen; His Complete Graphics 1957-2005, published by Macmillan Art Publishing in 2005. Twice winner of the Wynne Prize for landscape painting, his retrospective exhibition shown at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales during 1991-92 confirmed his enduring place as one of Australia's finest artists.