100 Highlights from the Cbus Collection of Australian Art
27 July 2022


born 1928

oil on canvas

152.5 x 167.0 cm

signed and dated lower left: John Olsen 87
signed, dated and inscribed with title on stretcher bar verso: ‘Landscape Hanging on To an Edge’ John Olsen 87

Private sale

Private collection 
Sotheby’s, Melbourne, 27 November 1989, lot 212 
Private collection 
Deutscher~Menzies, Melbourne, 22 November 1998, lot 293 
Private collection 
Deutscher~Menzies, Melbourne, 3 May 2000, lot 19 
The Cbus Collection of Australian Art, Melbourne, acquired from the above (label attached verso, no. 2000.10)


Drawn From Life, Olsen Carr Art Dealers, Sydney, 1 October 1997, cat. 1 (as 'Hanging on the Edge')
on long term loan to Geelong Art Gallery, Victoria


McCulloch, A., McCulloch, S., & McCulloch Childs, E., The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006, p. 746 (illus.)
Nainby, B., Stanhope, Z., and Furlonger, K., The Cbus Collection of Australian Art, in association with Latrobe Regional Gallery, Melbourne, 2009, pp. 136 (illus.), 228

Catalogue text

Located 700 kilometres north of Adelaide, Lake Eyre had first captured Olsen’s imagination in October 1974 when he was invited by the esteemed naturalist, Vince Serventy, to venture to the area which had flooded for only the second time in living memory since white settlement. Known as the ‘Dead Heart’, the arid, salt-encrusted interior of South Australia was suddenly transformed into a teeming inland oasis, ‘a carnival of life’, leaving the artist not only awestruck, but inspired – both visually and conceptually – by the contradictions inherent within such a place – of fullness and emptiness, life and death. As Deborah Hart suggests, ‘Life approached the lake, clinging to its edges; however, the lake itself was a place for contemplation, a vast, engulfing space: The void...’1 And Olsen himself elaborated '[t]he lake might be viewed symbolically as an unconscious plughole of Australia, a mental landscape, as is the habit of painting and writing. Because it is 13 metres below sea level – and perhaps nowhere in Australia does one have the feeling of such complete emptiness – covered by a bowl of endless sky with inviting silences, there is, as you stand on the edge of the lake, a feeling that you are standing on the edge of the void.’2

Olsen was so profoundly affected by his experience at Lake Eyre that henceforward motifs of ‘the void’ and ‘the edge’ would become seminal to his way of interpreting the world, indelibly influencing his understanding of the intimacy of form and line; ‘...the serene atmosphere and reductive qualities found in many of his works, where the empty spaces are as important as the marks themselves, and to the line probing space, becoming the edge, where things meet, end and begin again.’3 Continuing the imagery of fringe-like life synonymous with his Lake Eyre paintings from 1974 to 1980, Landscape Hanging on to an Edge, 1987 features the landscape viewed from an aerial perspective and presented in a minimalist style, attesting to Olsen's interest in the Oriental art maxim ‘of stretching emptiness to its limits.’ Significantly, the work was painted amidst the picturesque beauty of Olsen’s bush retreat at Clarendon, South Australia – a joyous and richly fertile period for the artist resulting in exquisitely lyrical works such as Golden Summer, Clarendon, 1983 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and A Road to Clarendon: Autumn, 1985 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), for which Olsen was awarded the prestigious Wynne Prize for landscape painting in 1985. 

Yet, by the time the present work emerged, Olsen’s halcyon days at Clarendon were drawing to a close. In May 1986, Olsen and Noela Hjorth had married in a legal ceremony at ‘The Old Rectory’ in Clarendon; by the following year their relationship became so fraught with emotional and psychological turmoil that in September 1987, they reached the point of no return and Olsen subsequently moved to Sydney. Accordingly, Landscape Hanging on to an Edge may be perceived as alluding to the artist living on the edge of a metaphorical desert, or as Olsen expressed it, ‘on the edge of everything that can be difficult.’4 The precarious diagonal line dissecting the canvas is the dividing edge – the tightrope between two spheres of thought, conflicting emotions or contrasting alternatives. Subtly interweaving his personal ideas and experiences within the genre of landscape painting, thus Olsen’s achievements are as much about exploring his own mental landscape as they are about documenting a topographical one; as he poignantly notes, ‘It takes longer to understand a region of the mind than a whole country.’5

1. Hart, D, John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p. 135
2. Olsen cited in Olsen, J., and Serventy, V., ‘The Dead Heart Lives’, National Times, 17 – 22 February 1975, p. 31
3. Hart, op. cit., p. 135
4. Olsen cited ibid., p. 182
5. Olsen cited ibid., p. 176