Important Australian + International Fine Art
3 May 2023


(1928 - 2023)

watercolour on paper

79.0 x 90.0 cm

signed and dated lower right: John / Olsen / 99
inscribed with title lower right: Landscape / with Black / Boys / Broome

$30,000 – $40,000
Sold for $61,364 (inc. BP) in Auction 74 - 3 May 2023, Melbourne

Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney
Private collection, Sydney


John Olsen: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper, Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney, 7 –⁠ 22 December 1999, cat. 7 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)

We are grateful to Kylie Norton, Editor, John Olsen Catalogue Raisonné, for her assistance with this catalogue entry.

Catalogue text

Like his meandering lines, John Olsen’s thoughts and musings on the things he sees and feels about the Australian landscape unravel across the surface, with the spontaneity and energy of a conversation in a pub. Not only does he paint the picture, but he spins the yarn of the entire adventure. Whether it is looking down from a light aircraft as he often does, or on his hands and knees observing mud maps of small creatures, Olsen lives and breathes his subject matter. It is as though he needs to witness and actually experience being in the landscape in order to truly see it. He is at the height of his abilities when he is at one with the landscape.

The subject of Landscape with Black Boys, 1999 features the eponymous plants, famous for their distinctive black trunks and magnificent crowns of grassy leaf strands, depicted as brooding vertical forms around the work. Their leafy flourishes will burn off in a bush fire with no harm to the plant, they simply regrow albeit very slowly. Their appearance earned them the now much dated nickname of Blackboy or Black Boy Plants.

Destruction as a creative impulse is an important aspect of Olsen’s work, it’s a basic tenet of painting that the artist needs a subject to be undone in order to be understood – and in turn, presented anew through the eyes of the artist. The overall feel of the current work is of a landscape brought to life by bush fire rather than destroyed, and in this sense echoes the idea ruin equals renewal. The bush needs fire as an essential element of nourishment, such as water and light. The heat from fire activity triggers the urge to grow in certain plants and seeds that may have been dormant for many seasons. The fire signals that it is their time to germinate and flourish. At the same time, it is the story of a journey through the landscape, like so many expeditions the artist undertook throughout his career.

One such trip to the pearling town of Broome occurred in 1983, when he was accompanied by Dame Mary Durack, Geoffrey Dutton, Vin Serventy and Alex Bortignon. The artist and writers explored the northwest of Australia resulting in numerous exhibitions and the publication of The Land Beyond Time, a major book which documented their trip. Olsen’s images of the surrounding landscape and the characters of the Western Australian town compliment the writers’ words throughout the publication. The current example was created on a later trip to the town in 1999 and therefore reinforces the artist’s connection with Western Australia. The artist’s eye wanders over the
land and describes the horizon, waterhole and the tracks that appear to come and go. John Olsen’s Landscape with Black Boys sits in harmony with the artist’s fascination with the Australian Landscape, its rugged contradictions and the timeless cycle of ruin and renewal that has occurred through millennia.