Sasha Grishin

John Olsen’s and John Wolseley’s Journals

Sasha Grishin

Why do so many Australian visual artists keep journals?  Do these journals constitute a specific genre which would distinguish them from autobiographical diaries, sketchbooks and artist’s books?  What are the implications of these journals for their private audiences, which may have privileged access to them in manuscript form, and to their broader public audience, which may see them published, frequently after they have been sanitised, selected and annotated by editors?  These are three questions which I wish to address in this short paper. For this purpose I will take the journals of John Olsen and John Wolseley as my case studies.

On the broader question of artists and their journals, there is an obvious flashing danger sign which discourages generalisations concerning the private writings of very individual creators. It is essentially the same danger sign which plagues the whole art historical discourse and one which warns us of the inherent dangers of writing of histories of painting, sculpture and the graphic arts, and which also points out the evils of periodisation and the problematics of stylistic categories. If we set to one side these broader and well rehearsed arguments, it may be possible to view a number of unifying qualities which constantly crop up in Australian artists’ journals.

In contrast to the broader diaristic tradition, where a person may simply chronicle events sequentially, visual artists have a tendency to engage in numerous literary, but particularly visual, digressions. I am unaware of the existence of any general survey of Australian twentieth century artists’ journals, so my observations are based on limited and imperfect knowledge of a number of artist’s journals. Even with a cursory glance at the journals of such artists as John Olsen, John Wolseley, John Firth-Smith, Fred Williams, Garry Shead, Petr Herel, George Gittoes, Merric Boyd, Wendy Stavrianos and Donald Friend, just to name a few, one notes that interspersed within the narrative of daily life are lengthy digressions concerning questions of aesthetics, artistic problems and the discussions of technical dilemmas. Almost without exception, the artist digresses into a discussion of the art which they have seen, they will question its worth and validity, comment on a particular technique encountered, for example, one employed by someone for applying glazes in oil painting, and pause, frequently at great length, on the agony which they are undergoing while working on a particular piece, whether it be a major mural or a commission for a Christmas card. Spelling and syntax are frequently creative and the calligraphy engaging. Almost without exception, pen, pencil and watercolour drawings intervene and break up passages of text and gain a life of their own. The visual element is not conceived as a gloss, one which is called upon when words fail the artist, but often forms the essential core of the journal. One drawing, or a collaged photograph, may lead to half a dozen sketches and to the metamorphoses of a motif. Sometimes the visual jottings are an aide-mémoire, on other occasions they constitute an essay in visual form.

In my experience, these peculiarities are common to many artist’s journals which I have examined and suggest that we can consider them as a unique art form, one which draws on several different genres, including the written diary, the artistic treatise, the sketchbook and the Victorian scrapbook. Obviously what I am attempting to do here is to create a particular category of objects and to see how many artist’s journals exist which fit into this category and whether these warrant the existence of a separate category. What this category excludes is collections of letters, sketchbooks—even those which include some written annotations—theoretical and pedagogical treatises, and artist’s books, all of which have their own and distinctive traditions. [1]   It is not unusual that the author of an artist’s journal would also leave an epistolary heritage, sketchbooks, a treatise or two on various subjects like portraiture, perspective or the environment, and produce artist’s books, such as an illustrated Ovid or images inspired by John Shaw Neilson or A.D. Hope.

As a source for researchers, the primary value of an artist’s journal is not so much in the light which it may cast on a particular artist’s biography, with the related litmus test of the honesty or deviousness in its presentation, but the insights which it provides into that particular artist’s creative process. My suggestion is that by interrogating the evidence presented in an artist’s journal, and by being conscious of the peculiarities of this genre, a researcher may gain insights which may otherwise be unattainable. A question immediately arises as to why some artists keep a journal and others do not. I have no answer for this, but in my experience, both here and abroad, visual artists have a tendency to keep journals, but generally show a great reluctance in divulging them to probing strangers. A number of artists definitely do not keep journals, while a few exceptional artists, who are equally celebrated as writers, here Barbara Hanrahan springs to mind, instead of a journal adopt the literary form of a diary.

Now to my case studies. John Wolseley, by the time he arrived in Australia in 1976, was already a well established artist in Britain. He has kept a detailed journal from an early age and these are now bound and run to about 30 volumes. In Wolseley’s writings there is frequently the expressed desire to be submerged within the landscape, almost like a form of mystical spiritual bonding. It is the need to be overcome by it and to enter into a private collaborative encounter with it. There is also a perceived need to record it with scientific accuracy, according to its rules and its sense of time, to allow chance and accident to act as autonomous creative principles. On a number of occasions, throughout his journals over the past 30 years, he makes very similar observations concerning the process of immersion in nature. In one instance he writes:

 I’ve got through my ‘five-day blues’. It seems to be about five days out on these trips that I have a day of feeling very bored—just plain bored. What seems to happen then is that the mind fills this vacuum—invents its own divertissements. I tend to get very excited by mad schemes. This time it was ‘going to live in Borneo’. Then, after these extravagances, somehow the surroundings take over. There comes a state of being that I usually reach after solitary periods, whose quality possibly provides the main reason why I do this ‘camping alone’ business. There is probably some rather basic practical cause to this. It seems to spring from the way when one person is with another—in a couple, or more extended situations—for much of the day he or she is chatting, engaged in the pleasant trivia of companionship. The outside point of reference is another human being, whereas in solitariness it is the external world of rocks, trees and birds that provides the texture of reference. It’s probable that the mind needs some kind of dialogue with something external. What I find is that after about a week alone I realise that I haven’t thought of anything much—say for several hours—but that my consciousness has been ‘out there’ with a succession of textural, visual and aural involvements; sensing the shape of rocks, waiting for phrases of bird song, or like today, following the filaments of spiders’ silk as tall as sailing ships as they float slowly past on the wind. It is a state of reverie. And after days of it there comes a time when all the elements of a place like this, the rhythms of cicada music, the wind in the trees, the undulations of rock strata, seem to take me over. [2]

At the same time, in the journals there is a preoccupation with idiosyncratic detail, which in terms of its method appears as a strange blend of the working notes of psychoanalyst, the journal entries of an early explorer, the report of a laboratory scientist and the lyrical evocations of an eccentric poet. This written journal is kept as a very personal response or reaction to the environment in which the artist finds himself, but it also serves as a testimony to ‘being there’, the single most important testimony to the experience of the fragments which are brought together in the completed art object. Virtually all of Wolseley’s works are made up of fragments, as he once noted: ‘Fragments. I feel happier with fragments, working with bits. I like subclauses, phrases, shreds and scraps of things. That is how we experience the fabric of life—how we remember the day, a walk in the bush, the past, childhood—sets of raggedly fragments, only just joined together.’ [3]  

In these recorded fragments, there is also the desire to note the absolute minutiae of the landscape setting, as if the diary of an ant, while at the same time to see within this record a global picture. On one hand, the method requires the artist to record the progress made by an ant over a passage of hours, the tracks of a wandering turtle or the journey of a grasshopper, but on the other, in all of this is seen the reflection of macrocosmic changes, which have developed over a period of millions of years.

Also in his journal he records with almost military precision his preparations for the campaign: the purchase of provisions, arrangements for shelter, the hours spent each day working, random botanical and zoological observations. The journal is like a field notebook of a passionate amateur natural scientist, crowded with excited observations. On one occasion, while camped at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, he noted: ‘These few days I have been part of the great battle/confrontation between the forces of cold and damp, snow and water. One winning one day, the other making an advance the next. Not that one or the other represent a pole, or anti-state for any but humans. I’ve seen on the mountain the snow marks made by creatures which live naturally as part of that world.’ [4]  

The qualities recorded in his journals reflect in an exacting manner those encountered in his work; the artist’s journal provides a unique insight into Wolseley’s thinking and process as an artist. John Olsen has kept his journal for over 40 years and, like Wolseley, combines personal observations on that which surrounds him with insights into his working processes. Whereas Wolseley has spent half of his life up a gum tree, Olsen has moved in the thick of the Australian art scene and his journal presents a candid assessment of artists, critics, academics, dealers and art institutions that surround him.

Olsen is kind to his peers and mentors. Passmore, Miller and Fairweather, if not deified, are presented as slightly larger-than-life characters. [5]   Nolan, despite being unable to draw, was a ‘true genius’, and there is also fairly unreserved praise for Drysdale, Williams, Baldessin and Kemp. John Wolseley is described as ‘a marvellous recruit for Australian art’, while Justin O’Brien is ‘tasteful but unfortunately bloodless’. Brett Whiteley comes off less well, his ‘Van Gogh things look very poor, and phoney. You can’t trample around Vincent, like a cheap pop singer’. While Albert Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil are ‘basically second-rate’. Lloyd Rees was a painter who improved with age and failing eyesight, which led to a ‘luminosity and transcendence to his vision’. Much of trendy postmodernism is discarded as predictable rubbish.

In the present context it may be worthwhile to pause on some of Olsen’s comments on Donald Friend. He writes:

Donald Friend retrospective, at the Art Gallery of NSW; as large and comprehensive as Donald could have wanted. Barry Pearce has curated it beautifully ... For all my support and barracking for Donald, I have never felt he was a major talent. I looked on him as a mercurial figure whose life and style were major but whose work was distinguished mainly by a love of fluent pen lines. Sometimes he achieved very fine draughtsmanship, yet there are no masterpieces, such as Fairweather could show; just exercises in style and eclectic decoration. These are probably as good as anything of their kind done in Australia. I have difficulty in deciding whether, in fact, he was a better writer than artist … I liked Donald very much; he had qualities very uncommon in Australia—wit, eclectic intelligence, urbanity, and enough introspection to understand the limit of his talents. This alternated with extreme conceit and vanity: he thought his ability to draw was really the cat’s pyjamas.

In Olsen’s journals a special type of disdain is reserved for the critics and academics. ‘Professor Patrick McCaughey’s book on Fred Williams—an example of an academic getting up himself. His views are governed by fantasy, by what he would like to see rather than by what is before his eyes. Donald Brook, Joseph Burke, Bernard Smith, all are guilty of this’. While the Sydney-based ‘Terry Smith has spent his entire life in academia!  A foolish man who like a mountain goat, clambers from one rock to another, always scrambling for higher ground, from which to look disdainfully down on others who are not so advanced. A Marxist, yet he condemns with all the snobbery of chic.’ While the guest curator John House: ‘For silliness, the curator’s remarks would be difficult to beat.’

John Olsen served as a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW and on the Council of the National Gallery in Canberra. In both instances he left valuable observations which today have a ring of prophecy. About Sydney he wrote in 1975: ‘The curatorial staff is conceited and arrogant, they are a coterie and want the collection to reflect their tastes only, and they resent being asked questions.’ In Canberra, on joining the Council in 1991, he noted:

A stronger stance towards acquisitions should apply. The director is not firm enough with some of the questionable recommendations by curatorial staff; her loyalty to them is compromising the council’s ability to properly discriminate what is being purchased. The last two council meetings have made very dubious decisions, particularly the purchase of a mediocre Dick Watkins painting, when in fact eleven are already owned. A Rosenquist print also purchased—very vulgar, very expensive. The council has reason to express concern about the number of objects in the collection (93,000 approx). The proper quality of discrimination is not being exercised, and storage and maintenance of these things, most of which will be never shown, is money wasted.

However the greatest value of his journals lies in the privileged access which John Olsen gives the reader to his creative process. Laying aside the various culinary tips and comments on lifestyle, throughout the entries runs the persistent concern with Zen mysticism and oriental ideas of landscape and mark-making. His account of the struggle with the Sydney Opera House mural, which many people rightly consider as one of the great works in Australian monumental art, contains a wonderful delineation of his creative process, but it is too long to quote here in its entirety. Towards the conclusion of his account, Olsen writes in April 1973: ‘Today we finished the mural. Strange how small it looked, I felt I had it in the palm of my hand, I had complete control over it.’ Seventeen years later, on 13 June 1990, he noted, ‘Why do I paint and draw small things, frogs and birds?  Perhaps caring for them would make the world a better place.’ Again, I would argue that as with Wolseley, with Olsen, his journals present us with a unique insight into his creative process.

Finally, a couple of words on editors and audiences. Olsen in his preface notes: ‘I want to thank Robert Gray, who edited this book—for his judicious selection from a great mass of material and for his renovating many of my scribbled notes.’ Certainly the published version makes for a good read and is loaded with memorable quotes and witty asides. However, by treating the artist’s journal as a diary or personal memoir does detract from its value as a source for an understanding of the artist’s creative process. While complete facsimile editions with full transcriptions and scholarly annotations would be the ideal for all published artist’s journals, where abbreviations are inevitable, both for practical purposes of publication and for reasons of sensitivity, it would be valuable for editors to realise that they are dealing with a manuscript which is not a literary diary nor is it an annotated artist’s book, but a written and visual exegesis which the artist felt compelled to make, an insight into a unique creative laboratory, where the main finished product takes upon itself a visual and not a verbal form.



[1] For a survey of literature on the tradition of artist’s books see Stefan Klima, Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998.

[2] John Wolseley, Journal for 1980, 11 October 1980, vol. 6, np., edited version published in Rodick Carmichael (ed.), Orienteering: Painting in the Landscape: Carmichael, Makin, Wolseley. Geelong : Deakin University Press 1982, pp. 155–156.

[3] John Wolseley, Notes about the installation ‘Deep Time Shallow Time: Journey from Ewanginga to Gosse Bluff’. [Melbourne: 1990] p. 6.

[4] John Wolseley, Journal for 1994, 22 May 1994, vol 21, pp. 109–110.

[5] All quotations from John Olsen’s journals are taken from John Olsen, Drawn From Life. Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1997.

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