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John Henry Olsen (b.1928)
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John Henry Olsen (b.1928)


John Henry Olsen (b.1928)
oil on board
48¼ x 36in. (122.6 x 91.4cm.)
with the Redfern Gallery, London, c.1958.
Private collection, London.
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Lot Essay

Olsen left Australia in December 1956 on his first trip abroad, returning after three years in February 1960. He had been sponsored by Mr and Mrs Robert Shaw, on the understanding he would send back works for an exhibition in Australia, in return for his travel and living allowance. As instructed by his benefactors, he spent most of his time in Europe rather than in England, favouring Spain, and Ibiza and Majorca in particular. Buoyed by his 1956 exhibitions, he left Australia with 'the comprehension of something waiting to be done. I was correct that it would take years, maybe a lifetime, to work it out.' (letter to Barry Pearce quoted in 'Direction 1', Art and Australia, vol. 24, no. 4, 1987, p.503). His European work from the late 1950s sees him in transition, clearly progressing, stimulated by a variety of new influences, most importantly the Celtic and Mediterranean landscapes with which the romantic in him quickly identified: 'When these works returned to Australia for his exhibition at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, in August 1958, they received a mixed reception. ... Robert Hughes, then twenty years of age, wrote a critical review for the Observer titled 'Killing Abstractionists'. However, eight years later he noted:

'"Olsen's vocabulary was now enriched by an interest in mandalas, crosses, towers, thrusting arrows, magical emblems whose half-disclosed meaning confronts us across a thousand years of Celtic twilight ... Plastically these paintings of 1957-58 were more inventive than his Australian work ... subtly geared to the moods of Cornwall and the Spanish plains, while the pigment itself ... suggested the growth of the landscape."

'... Back in London, Olsen spent some time catching up on exhibitions, viewing shows by Keith Vaughan, Terry Frost and Alan Davie. He continued to do some of his own painting in London, but ultimately never found the environment conducive to his work. In July he noted that the Redfern Gallery had taken two of his works for a group exhibition [possibly the present picture and its companion]. On the subject of trying to get a one-man exhibition in London, he considered his work was not yet ready. "What I need to do is work myself clearer ... It is certainly fatal to think of successful pictures -- just do works of integrity."' (D. Hart, John Olsen, Sydney, 1991, pp.39-42)

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