Important Fine Art + Indigenous Art
18 April 2018


born 1928

watercolour and pastel on paper

94.5 x 99.5 cm

signed and inscribed with title lower right: The Bridge / John Olsen

$45,000 – 65,000
Sold for $75,640 (inc. BP) in Auction 53 - 18 April 2018, Sydney

Private collection
Sotheby’s, Melbourne, 25 August 1997, lot 222 (as ‘Harbour Bridge’)
Gene and Brian Sherman collection, Sydney

Catalogue text

John Olsen is a master water-colourist and in The Bridge he conveys the vitality and organic dynamism of the harbour, Sydney’s crown jewel, with sincere expression and lyricism. Informed by the philosophy of Vitalism, the belief in the organic interconnectedness of all things, Olsen’s work is characterised by an exuberant, expressive celebration of the environment and of the life forces that govern it: the sun, the sky and water. All of Olsen’s work displays a deep engagement with the Australian landscape, but those depicting the harbour, described by the artist as the city’s ’umbilical chord [sic.]’1, reveal the symbiosis between the city and its inhabitants.

While most of Olsen’s paintings of Sydney Harbour – particularly those of his ‘littoral’ series between 1963-65 – featured a diminutive Harbour Bridge engulfed by a chaotic flux of tides, city and people, The Bridge places the iconic structure in the centre of the picture plane, yawning across the watery expanse. Olsen is an intuitive and meditative draftsman, whose work expresses the Vitalist principle of interconnectedness by literally connecting each element of his compositions through line.2 In The Bridge, Olsen’s archetypal visual language, characterised by his gestural and calligraphic line, harnesses and maintains the viewer’s attention. The line swerves and wanders across the paper, from lazy undulating wisps and spirals, to staccato dashes and vigorous scrawls. With this work showing an extraordinary range of mark-making of varying degrees of intensity and pace, layered over a delicate background wash, Olsen expresses the beauty of Sydney harbour with joyful abandon.

1. Olsen’s deliberate misspelling reinforcing the qualities of harmony and unity – Murphy, J., ‘The Journals of John Olsen’ in Hurlston, D., and Hart, D. (eds.), John Olsen The You Beaut Country, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2016, p. 98
2. Edwards, D., ‘The Littoral and the Void’, in Hurlston, D., and Hart, D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 25