El amoladar (The tinker) 1986 signed and dated 'John Olsen '86' lower left oil, gouache and charcoal on canvas 153.0 x 166.0cm (60 1/4 x 65 3/8in).
PROVENANCE Dr Sam Shub, Melbourne Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1998
EXHIBITED John Olsen, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, September October 1986, cat. no. 2 John Olsen: Retrospective, touring exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1 November 1991 2 February 1992; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 8 May - 28 June 1992 (label attached verso)
LITERATURE Gary Catalano, 'A not-so-obvious contrast', The Age, Melbourne, undated c. September 1986 Deborah Hart, John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, pp. 178-9, 216, pl. 122 (illus.) John Olsen, Drawn from life, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 1997, p. 250
It's a well-worn cliché, but elder statesman is a term that is a deserving tribute to John Olsen's contribution to Australian art. And it's not simply a case of longevity. He has, through each decade of his career, produced work which is inseparable from any account of Australian art. From the bravura mural-scale works to gentle and subtle watercolours, he excels in each medium regardless of scale.
In the early 1960s Olsen's expressive and idiosyncratic figuration was new and individual - he once said, 'I have never painted an abstract picture'. Yet, the sharpness of his vision and the expressiveness of his painting technique often coalesce into images which are wholly sensory, where the subject remains ambiguous. He deeply respects tradition yet developed a pictorial language which is immediately recognisable and has become part of an Australian iconography. Despite our familiarity with it, his art has never become a hackneyed representation of Australianness.
Paradoxically, what shaped his aesthetic was not his Australian precursors, but European art, the Spanish in particular. The COBRA movement of the 1940s and 50s too was an important influence, the artists' vibrant use of colour and gestural impasto pushed ideas of expressionism to a new realm, where overstatement was the norm. Coupled with this was the intensity of Olsen's keen eye and obvious affection for what he painted. If he was interested in an idea, experience an observation nothing was excluded, and his remarkable pictorial cacophony emerged and he produced paintings of relentless energy.
The 'You Beaut' paintings of 1961 and '62 quickly placed him at the forefront of Australian modernism perhaps a sign of a new post-Antipodean generation, where any sense of literalism or allegory was completely eclipsed.
Less known is that works such as Spanish encounter 1960 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) which was painted in the year he returned from Spain, and bought by the AGNSW in the same year, informed his Australian paintings in style and approach to the subject. Reflection and memory are important to Olsen's work the sifted remnants remaining in the artist's mind shape the character of his art. He might draw and paint on location, but it's the studio which creates the time, space and distance to refine the accumulations of original experience.
While he is known for his impulsive and exuberant technique, the sombre tone in his early work emerges from an interest in and understanding of artists such as Goya and Francisco de Zurbaran. His delight in incident and the meandering sketchiness of his method might be attributed to the unfolding experience of immersing himself in Spanish culture, and the rich historical patinations of places where he lived.
Olsen's return to Spanish subjects in the 1980s is important he refused to be typecast or locked into a local cul-de-sac, despite the fact that his paintings of the Australian landscape were already celebrated as having a distinctive authenticity. Aerial and multi-views, flatness with vastness vignettes of subtle detail; he could be big picture and miniaturist in one.
El amoladar (The tinker) is Olsen at his most spritely, affectionate and joyful. It's not the joie de vivre as in his tapestry of 1964-65 (Joie de vivre, John Olsen and Portugal Tapestry Workshop, AGNSW) which is bold and emblematic. This painting is more specific, almost a love affair, about a place, a person and a culture whose importance to the artist persisted it was painted in Sydney in 1986, a year after another trip to Spain.
It is scattered with incidents and colloquial quirks, but as with all Olsen's work, there is a sense that everything combines to represent something far more compelling than the sum of its parts. Here the composition is held together in a precarious poise with the title, El amoladar, written as a declaration and celebration. The tinker's accoutrements are placed casually across a surface of painted lines and flecks that are almost staccato in effect and evoke an uncomplicated happiness. Olsen is no longer gritty, black and intense, with muted colour as in his earlier Spanish subjects. He is now vibrant, almost jubilant in returning to the source which inspired his art from the late 1950s.