King of the brilliant John Olsen reveals his dark, melancholy side
It’s a slight exaggeration, but looking at this year’s finalists, it’s an injustice Olsen didn’t win, because Donde voy? is a work of greater depth and ambition than anything else. It is also a striking element of this investigation: a late-night horror film of a painting in which the elderly artist, his face barely more than a skull decorated with a few threads of raw meat, confronts his lookalike in the dark. The only shiny detail is a fried egg that glows like a light bulb – a reference to Velazquez’s famous photo, An old woman cooking eggs, 1618, a demonstration of youthful virtuosity, painted at the age of 18 or 19.
Needless to say that in Donde voy? the egg has a very different connotation, serving as a melancholy and ironic memory of lost youth. It’s a theme that comes up again and again on this show as we find Olsen ruminating on his fading powers, dealing with episodes of depression or lack of inspiration. It often includes a reference to a great artist or poet, as if to emphasize the universality of such issues. An obvious example is The desertion of circus animals, 1994, which is inspired by the poem by WB Yeats which describes the long and futile efforts to define a “theme”. In the midst of the mess, both his and the poet’s, Olsen paints himself like a red-faced gremlin emerging from a cup of tea.
In these unflattering self-images, we see the flip side of Olsen’s selfishness. It could be described as a predilection for melancholy, at worst feelings of regret and self-loathing. Where this exhibition is truly impressive is how these dark ‘introspective’ works gain strength by being put alongside a selection of vibrant and festive images such as Golden summer, Clarendon, 1983, Where the bee sucks, there I suck, 1984-86, and – a real hit – an exuberant two-panel ceiling painting, The sun, 1964, uninstalled from a private collection and reinstalled at the NAS Gallery.
It took a huge commitment of time and resources to secure works such as The solel and the painting of a deep blue two meters long, The bay and the tidal basin, 1977, made as a private commission and never exhibited before. It is this depth of engagement that distinguishes this investigation from so many museum exhibitions that tend to cut corners – to the detriment of the subject. Alderton and his team drew on numerous private collections, bringing together old works and, among other highlights, two fabulous bath paintings.
As the title suggests, John Olsen: Goya’s Dog explores the artist’s debt to Spain and to the Spanish artists from Velazquez and Goya to Tapies, Saura and Miro. From his first visit in 1956, Olsen felt a strong attraction to Spain, seeing it as the “dark” counterpart of “sunny” Australia. He returned to Spanish themes several times throughout his career, from the time of Spanish dating, 1960, the revolutionary triptych that helped forge its reputation.
Spanish art and literature is teeming with images of absurdity and death, reflecting the country’s long-term poverty, its submission to the Catholic Church, and its authoritarian rule. It is the antithesis of those bucolic images of gum trees and sheep pastures that dominated 20th century Australian art. It’s eons of explosive joy in the natural world that we find in Olsen You Beautiful Country pictures.
Sometimes Olsen was completely captivated by the Australian landscape, on other occasions obliged to contemplate the human condition. This second concern was largely pessimistic, saturated with Spanish references. He introduced himself as Don Quixote, the honorable but demented knight who bowed before the windmills. He identified with Goya, who played the courtier at the court of Carlos IV, but devoted much of his private work to scenes of madness, violence and despair.
To speak of Goya’s dog is to instantly evoke a painting of a dog’s head emerging from a brown mass and tilted under a pale and empty ocher sky. One of the artist’s “blackboards” recovered from the wall of his house, the Quinta del Sordo (House of the deaf) is an image of isolation and helplessness. If the dog drowns, as is generally believed, there will be no one to come to his aid. It symbolizes Goya’s isolation from deafness and his sense of helplessness as his life is engulfed in a tidal wave of war and civil unrest.
Olsen obliquely engages with this work in three austere and minimal paintings completed this year, Reflections on the dog of Goya I, II & III. They feature the artist and a companion dachshund – a breed more comical than noble. The man and the beast look like dirty billows of smoke on a black and brown background. The light bulb hanging from the ceiling in two of these panels could be taken from Picasso Guernica, or perhaps one of Philip Guston’s studio paintings. If a bulb stereotypically signifies an idea, it is only loosely conceived. In this dismal setting, the dog also evokes the “black dog” of the depression that afflicted Dr Johnson and Winston Churchill.
People with depression have the impression that there is literally nothing to see or do, nothing meaningful. by Goya Dog, with its formidable representation of emptiness – an anticipation of abstract art – captures this feeling with surprising intensity. Yet there is also a paradoxical grandeur in this painting, a commitment to truth that many have seen as inherently beautiful. Olsen struggled for that same brutal honesty, but he knows it is absurd to compare his own comfortable existence with Goya’s life and times. Her dog is playful, not threatening. The weak bulb keeps the vacuum at bay. An old painter has nothing to do but continue working in the studio as long as there is a glimmer of light.
John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, National Art School Gallery, until August 7.
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