John Olsen: Goya’s Dog

Image: John Olsen, Golden summer, Clarendon, 1983, oil on hardboard, 182.5 x 244.3 cm, purchased with the assistance of Salomon Brothers 1985, Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection © John Olsen/Copyright Agency

CURATOR: Steven Alderton based on a concept by William Wright AM

The National Art School is proud to present John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, a powerful exploration of an extraordinary Australian artist – from his creative awakening in Spain, through the darkness that threatened to overwhelm him at times, and his ability to reach for the light, pursuing a long and acclaimed career.

John Olsen is one of the National Art School’s most renowned graduates, a NAS Fellow, AO and OBE. Goya’s Dog features over 50 major works, sketchbooks and drawings, many not seen in public for generations.

The exhibition begins in Spain during the mid-1950s when the young artist became entranced and inspired by Spanish culture – art, poetry and music – which drew him to explore a darker, more vulnerable side of his personality and experience. Another visit to Spain in the mid-1960s transformed his palette, which became more dynamic and bold.

“It was a remarkable experience because Spain was completely isolated from the modishness of the 20th century, it was still the essential heart of Europe. And then as I began to study, I became aware that even though Spain is a bright and sunny country, that its principle painting lay on the basis of tone – Velazquez, Goya, Murrillo – and somehow those earthy tones reverberated the soul of Spain.  

“It was very profound … rather than thinking outwards, it made you think inwards. Still in Australia today, they like the sunny side of the world, whereas the Spanish like the shadow side of the world. I found that very intriguing.” John Olsen, February 2021 

The exhibition also features Olsen’s work from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, a period when his vital urban Australian ‘larrikin’ voice emerged. The Olsen landscape became like a theatre or stage, where human drama takes place. It is vivacious, teeming with metaphysical life; in parallel with and embracing real life.

Known for the irrepressible vitality in his work and his buoyant personality, Olsen is a visual poet with a deep love of poetry underpinning his work. Yet he has also confronted darkness in his life, reflected in works such as Donde voy? Self-portrait in moments of doubt (1989). This powerfully introspective painting fits within a venerable history of western art, one which looks mortality in the face.

“I’m 93, and I’m more entranced with the dark side. Not in a mournful sense, but in a sense of enquiry.” John Olsen 

Olsen has followed his lifelong urge to set sail into the unknown, delving into the landscape that takes on the form of a living being, full of emotions, foibles and beauty. Through the storms, struggles and soul-searching, he lands on moments of enlightenment, where he is able to capture the energy and elemental life forces of nature, and what it is to be human within this world.

“What I’m talking about is the artist as hunter gatherer. Being daring, and not frightened of the outcome. You’re a journeyman, in the real sense. It’s not the question of failure, it’s the question of understanding and feeling, where you’re able to inhabit your interior world.” John Olsen 

Explore the exhibition

Images: John Olsen: Goya’s Dog installation view, 2021. Photos: Peter Morgan

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