Artist John Olsen
Recording date:

Acclaimed artist John Olsen AO, OBE, joined the Friends of the National Library of Australia for the launch of his book, My Salute to Five Bells. In conversation with Dr Deborah Hart, senior curator at the National Gallery of Australia, John Olsen discusses his journals which formed the basis for this book, his inspiration for the Five Bells mural and his long, illustrious career.

Book Launch: My Salute to Five Bells by John Olsen
Sunday 19 July 2015
National Library of Australia

Speakers: Robyn Oates (R), Debra Hart (D), John Olsen (J), Margy Burn (M), Audience member 1 (A), Audience member 2 (B), Audience member 3 (C)


R: Well good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this Friends of the National Library event. My name is Robyn Oates and I’m the Chair of the Friends Committee. We’re very pleased this afternoon to be able to host the book launch of the latest National Library of Australia publication, My Salute to Five Bells by John Olsen. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land.

The Friends always look forward to launching new Library publications and we’re delighted that we can host events such as the one this afternoon to celebrate the splendid books that are produced by the Library. This book, My Salute to Five Bells, is really something special. Not only is it a beautiful book to look at but as Barry Pearce, Emeritus Curator of the Australian Art Gallery ... Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales puts it in his foreword, he writes “it privileges us with rare insight into the artist’s engine room moving between agitato and lento, eloquence of thought and text and the emotional, intellectual and visual struggle towards the unknown of how his ... this public masterpiece might turn out to be”.

In My Salute to Five Bells John Olsen talks about the inspiration for his striking mural at the Sydney Opera House. This inspiration was the poem, Five Bells, by Kenneth Slessor. Many, many Australians know and love this poem. John, I think there was a very generous genius at work here because you also say that you wanted poetry to be part of the sum of the work. This elegiac poem of the harbour of light and dark, of life and death contains human universals that speak to us all in Slessor’s words and in your art. The centrepiece of this book is Olsen’s Opera House journal in which he combines images, sketches and notes and ponders his artistic journey. A selection of the images from the book can be seen on the screen behind me.

John Olsen has been one of Australia's most consistently honoured artists over his professional life and his work is represented in most Australian public collections. He was awarded an OBE for services to the arts in 1977 and an Order of Australia in 2001. We’re very grateful to John for agreeing to appear in conversation in this event today.

Joining John Olsen to discuss his art journal and the poetic inspiration for his magnificent Sydney Opera House mural and his long illustrious career is Dr Debra Hart, Senior Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture after 1920 at the National Gallery of Australia. Debra’s long studied the work of John Olsen and is the author of a book about his career entitled quite simply, John Olsen.

Please join me in welcoming John Olsen and Debra Hart to the stage.


D: Thank you very much for that kind introduction and it’s a great pleasure to be here today to talk about this wonderful new publication that has come out ... been published by the National Library of Australia. And it’s just great to have John here to talk to us and give us some insights into that particular project and his working methods. John, hello.

J: Hello.

D: I’d like to start by just thinking about how you really changed our way of looking at the Australian landscape when you came back to Sydney after your first trip to Europe and people think about this re-envisioning of place, of landscape but the sea is something that’s always been important to you as well, hasn’t it? How has the sea fed into that, in your life and in your art?

J: Well being brought up in Sydney you can’t escape it, you know, at that wonderful ... that wonderful blue bits goddess called Sydney Harbour, and ... and it cradles itself, because remembering the geography of Sydney Harbour, that the hills come down to the harbour and it’s like a great big bath. And if you have love in you, it gets you and it’s fantastic. And the other thing is that being brought up in Sydney, yes, but there was also the thing that we lived at Bondi and ... and there is a difference in an Australian child and a Mediterranean child say, born under the sun and those that are born under the sun, it leaves a gravure in them, it stains their personality for ever. Like for me you can’t take the Bondi out of the boy.

D: Thank you so that ties in really well with this time when you’d been away from Australia as a young artist, you’d just left art school and you came back to Sydney and you really made this huge impact on the place and over that next period we have works like ‘Journey into the You Beaut Country’ and ‘Sydney Sun’ which is in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection and interestingly also in that ‘60s period you did salute ... you did’ Five Bells’ which is hanging in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Can you tell us a little bit about the atmosphere in Sydney in the early 1960s when you came back after living in an old Mediterranean culture? What was Sydney like then?

J: Well yes, a very thing ... a very interesting thing happened to me is ... like I must tell you that say to be a student in the ‘40s and early ‘50s, a student of art, that it was entirely close community and in a way that you’d dedicated your life to ... pecuniary is the underestimation of it, and that you had to be driven, you had to be dedicated to what you’re driven by. And in search there was no hope like when I ... because my parents were ... they brought me up during the depression years and severely bruised by it and so when I announced at the dinner table that I was going of leave my job at David Jones and I was going to be a cleaner and that I was going to study art fulltime and my mother’s reaction was what will the neighbours say? And the second thing of walking back towards the bedroom my father said, well son, you’re going to be mixing with a lot of strange people. And he was right. But so is humanity very strange. so I began to voyage in this wonderful thing and what I can say to you all, art is never-ending and to see and to try to understand the wonderful images, it’s just the greatest privilege of my life and it’s endless and what I’m pleased to say, fantastic. Fantastic.

To be involved and really to look at the pictures of van Eyck, Memling, of Manet and understand what Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe is really about and then to sort of face up to modernism and then to witness ... I don’t know whether it’s my age or something, but I think that in the west at the moment there is a decline. There is a decline not only in art but there is a decline in the central sense of our morality and of our ... and literature and poetry, poetry has been severely bruised by say the American poet, the free verse things of William Carlos Williams. And I can view of it ... and you can make up your own minds about this but I can see ... I can see decline and I think that the avant garde is ridiculous, because of its emphasis on newness and newness never entered the minds of the great masters. Newness never was a central plank of Giotto through to Botticelli, newness was never a plank of Ingres or of Poussain, that newness is no time finishes up to be merely fashion.

So we cannot disconnect ourselves too easily from the cannon, and the cannon is the greatest sculpture ever produced was Egyptian ... is Egyptian and even Francis Bacon acknowledges that. And then it trails itself through the Mediterranean to Greece and the archaic Greek thing is the influence by trading ships of Egyptian arts and through then it goes through Rome and it’s Italian and it’s terrific. And then it gets into the north countries in which the north country says, we are not going to have this idealisation that we see in Italian art, we want to see people more like what they are. Rembrandt, van Eyck, Memling, wonderful things. It makes the Archibald Prize ridiculous. And I’ve been a judge of that.

So this is what I mean, I like my vertical spine, I like that I stand for something, I like that I know what good drawing is, I like that. You know and that makes art for me something that is so important in the architect of not only ourselves but our life. We think it differently, we think of poetry which has had an enormous effect on me because of its ability of the extended metaphor, and as you can see I feel okay.

D: Well I think there are a few things in what you’ve just said that I think are really important. I was lucky enough by the way to actually meet John’s mum when I was researching my book on John Olsen and I remember her very proudly saying how John had loved drawing from early on, that John actually used to draw in the margins of her cookery books and that was a lovely memory. And also of John’s sense of theatre which I think is about a love of words and is really pertinent to what we’re doing today and to this idea that you are ... you’ve just mentioned about yes you know things were new and fresh but there’s also the sense of an underpinning tradition and a love of poetry which comes through, you know your love of TS Eliot, of EE Cummings, of people like oh well how can I forget Gerard Manley Hopkins particularly and Lorca, but it’s like a colouration of place, isn’t it, John? And I wonder if you can tell us about how you came across ... we were just talking about it before ... Slessor’s poem in relation to the commission for Salute to Five Bells.

J: Was an incredible thing. James Gleeson asked me to lunch ... James Gleeson was the Chairman of the Dobell Foundation and he said to me after several chardonnays would I like to do something in the Sydney Opera House and I said well of course, of course I would. And so we designated a space of ... a h ... very big space. I’ll use the old metr ... the old system, 70 foot long and it’s curved like a ... like a Japanese bridge and ... but then after the initial excitement of that I thought well yes, that’s all very well but what? And this is where I think in our life that we have to have a sense of serendipity and of all things ... like I always admired Slessor but I reached for a book ... I can remember this very, very clearly ... and I put it down on the table and it opened at Five Bells, an incredible, incredible thing. And as I’m sure you all appreciate the ... the very controversial nature of the Opera House in which it was costing far too much and we ought to have more schools and more hospitals and there was no foreseeable end to it and the media of course just ... just really ran so heavily over the top of that. In fact after the Sydney Opera House ... I’ll just say this in addendum ... never was a public building quoted as a price again, even a new parliament house and the extensions of the parliament house in Sydney, New South Wales.

And so I stumbled across these lines, “time that is moved by fidget wheels is not my time, the wheels that do not move between the double and the single bell, there lies Joe, long since dead, who lies between five bells.” Wow. And there is this space and it’s looking east and west across the harbour and Utzon had gone and at that time it’s hard to ... it’s hard for us to grasp this ... they were thinking of pulling the whole lot down, extraordinary. And anyhow that did not prevail and I wrote to Utzon who was then in Denmark and I said to him look, here is this thing, this kind of bridge, how should I deal with it? And Utzon’s terms were very straight, make it move east to west and become part of the harbour. So then I’m beginning to like focus on this and I’m thinking to myself well alright but then the poem picks up again which gives the overall colouration of the mural itself. Deep and dissolving verticals of light ferry the falls of moon shining down. Five bells. It’s moonlight. And what I had then, and this book describes this, of our struggle to get this colouration of moonlight on Sydney Harbour. It took a lot of time to really work that one out. The book tells you all about that.

And then there’s the narrative. So I go and see Ken Slessor who’s in the last years of his life and he’s at the journalists’ club. His life at that time was very empty and I told him and he said oh yeah, that five bells thing. Yes, he said, well we used to drink at a hotel in Philip Street, Sydney, which was up from a newspaper that we worked for, called Smiths Weekly. And anyhow, it was one Friday night, and a group of us was there and we heard that there was a party at Mosman. And one of the artists there was Joe Lynch, and it was the time as you’ll understand, 6 o’clock closing, and so it was a cold night and Joe’s stuffed two beer bottles in the sides of his pockets and Slessor then described there was “much gentility”. I don’t quite know what that means but anyhow they go down to Circular Quarry and they get on the Mosman ferry and Joe is sort of standing by himself at the rear of the ferry and a huge liner went past and rocked the ferry and in no time the question was asked “where’s Joe?” Joe had fallen down ... fallen into the sea and of course went straight to the bottom because of the beer bottles and his body was never found. So there’s lines of where .. in Five Bells in which “where are you, dead man?” And it’s interesting and you know I can’t really fathom except that I think the best of Slessor, he’s a very good poet indeed, and why it’s become one of the best known poems of Australian poetry. It’s got a sort of a modern style about it but very beautifully structured, it somehow explains itself so well so really my Five Bells is the narrative, it’s a story and if it’s properly observed which this book gives the key to, that there is Joe Lynch sinking into the harbour and he’s becoming attached to squids and things like that, he’s becoming part of the harbour. It’s very ... very moving for me, it’s probably one of the great things of my life and the other thing, contradictorily, is Lake Eyre.

D: I think one of the things that really comes through in the Five Bells and you get a sense of it in some of the images and when John’s talking about the colour, this quite mystical purply blue that gives that feeling of night-time and the little touches of moonlight,t and spatially it’s very different. I mean you might like later on to come and look at John’s earlier version of the poem, Five Bells, which is of a very different time in your life and also a different spatial quality comes into it I think because of that long sweep that you’ve talked of. But I think in fact some of the things that you’ll see coming up on the screen also allude to your interest in Zen Buddhism, and you know this idea of space, of the fullness of emptiness. I think it’s something that I observed in your journals really early on, that there was this interest that came through. I think you were given a book by Paul Haefliger?

J: Yes.

D: Is that DT Suzuki ..?

J: Yes. Yeah, Zen’s influence on Japanese culture, an oriental classic. There is a very interesting aspect of oriental philosophy, is this, that emptiness is as full as fullness, and it probably corresponds to latterly why I became interested in Lake Eyre because Lake Eyre on one point of view is mostly a very dense thick salt lake. In fact the land speed test was broken on Lake Eyre. And it’s full of emptiness, it’s full of emptiness, and it’s the lowest point below sea level in Australia. And so when does it fill? And it fills when they have heavy rain in western Queensland, which is called the channel country, and then it’s heavy rain in the Flinders Ranges and heavy rain in Alice Springs, and it comes down like to this vast space. It’s so vast that, say, when you are flying there and you reach the edge of the lake, and it’s full of water, you cannot see the horizon. And so it reemphasises what Sturt thought Australia had as an inland sea. And it is remarkable because this dry, arid silence becomes seagulls, seagulls nesting, thousands of pelicans, the lake is full of fish and it is just like a vast inland sea. It’s a wonderful thing and can you imagine that ... and this is the wonderful thing about being Australian and being in a very old continent is that unlike Europe in which it’s had great poets, musicians and artists that have honed and translated what that landscape means. Australia isn’t like that you know it’s open for new discovery and I find that particularly, particularly challenging.

D: Sorry, John, I mean I think that’s really beautiful, the way that the Opera House mural actually forms like this bridge between your earlier work and you know after being in Sydney you went down to Dunmoochin in Victoria and then you’re working on the Opera House and then it goes on to Lake Eyre and in a way the Opera House mural contains ... condenses a lot of things but so does this journal which has been so beautifully published because what you get in the journal is that thinking. It’s like the discursiveness, it’s the little notations. I mean there are pages with notes about things I like and I love that about journals and I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about the role that journals play in the making of your art like how would a day go when you make your entries?

J: Well ... well the fascinating thing for me anyway because as you probably surmise that I could have had aspirations to being a writer but I suffer from galloping art in the tertiary stages and I couldn’t find a doctor that could operate. But ... say that again.

D: So whe ... you know how with your journals, they’re quite an important part of your working process, isn’t it? In the morning for example would you ... do you work on your journals every day?

J: No, no, I don’t, I only write when I feel I have something to say. I mean Fred Williams, my dear friend, the journals are absolutely ridiculous because it goes like at the top of the page there’s sort of rain coming down from a bad drawing of clouds with sunny day, da, da, da, da and then I had fish and chips for lunch and so I don’t really ... I cannot subscribe to that notion. And so the journals are full of what I feel important to say, they mightn’t be to somebody of ... but what I feel important to say. And there is an interesting thing for those of you who write, I’m sure there’s a lot of you here or keep a journal, is that one’s thoughts are very fleeting but when you begin to write it leads you to areas that you wouldn’t normally talk about it and it’s by beginning ... as TS Elliot wrote “in the beginning is my end” ... is that ... it’s that writing and then suddenly an idea comes into your head which nominally, for me anyway, I would not be able to get that far ... get that far with it. So the journals therefore is a reminder of self, sort of ... so they’re not ... even though the journal is .. derivation is day, but that’s quite different from a day-to-day diary.

D: I mean I think it’s very interesting you know I’m sure any of us who’ve done research in this room know the importance of letters or documents from the time and actually taking you into that and so along with things I like and notations and drawings you also in this journal take us right into things like the struggle of what it was to make that Opera House mural you know and I’m sure even looking back it would be hard to capture that so I’m just going to read a tiny little bit where you’ve had this huge struggle and you’ve gone in and you’ve really felt there’s this - you know I think people really underestimate the huge struggle of commissions like this and being in this public ... the public spotlight and I think, John, when the mural went into the Opera House it was quite delicate and you felt like you had to go in and work into it, but here’s just a little bit. You say:

We’ve had a good day working but it’s been quite hideous with the heckling from the workmen, it’s been really rough. There we are quietly working, that miraculous silence of a brush moving and suddenly I’m aware of someone standing beside me, “hey sport, what’s this about?” One character kept yelling out “You’ll be sued for this”. And of course the old weary one, “my child could do better”. Good, I know a good dealer I could recommend him to.

You know but it really does take you into that, that sort of sense of the intimacy and the struggle that is part of it and just to go back for a moment to that Salute to Five Bells, I mean that was a huge project to undertake, wasn’t it? And you know just going from the experience of working in the ... was it a warehouse that you were working in? A big shed.

J: Yes, a big woolshed.

D: Yes with a couple of bouncers from King’s Cross who were your helpers.

J: Yes, yes, I needed them.

D: Yeah so ...

J: It’s ... I’m returning ... it’s interesting, at the end it of I’m really a nervous wreck. I felt so fragile and ... and uncertain about being corrected and whether I’d really ... I’d really done it. And it’s a kind of a crisis. And the decision to put the unfinished mural into the Opera House itself was probably right but it allowed ... like, interference and people, and I really needed those two King’s Cross bouncers to keep them away and that to say the least was very, very tough. And then comes the point that you leave and the mural’s got to look after itself. Because you see ... I’m sure you see ... that when you’re in a studio, that it’s just this rapport between you and a canvas, the rapport that Cezanne had with Mont Sainte-Victoire, the rapport that Van Gogh had with the sunflower. That’s entirely a personal thing but when you go public as Tiepolo does in Venice, that, it’s a different kind of thing that you’re going public and somehow there is the enforcement of something that’s beyond just a studio picture. It’s a very ... it’s a very difficult situation and you’ve got to have the right ... the right temperament for it and I can pride myself of having the right temperament but at the end of it that Opera House really, really had me just absolutely ... absolutely shattered. Very tough, very tough because the media which never apologises for anything, even though wrong, it’s unforgiving and what I’ve just said is you leave the mural then and it has to speak for itself.

And this for me is a particularly ... like a great moment because this is a renaissance of my thoughts 45 years ago and the struggle it contains and there it was, that all the controversy that no one will ever go to the Opera House with the mantra why aren’t we building hospitals and schools and all that kind of thing? And what really happened was that the Opera House became almost the symbol of Australia itself. It’s a remarkable ... it’s a remarkable transition that we’ve all witnessed, that this piece, this sail-like thing ... or at Utzon said you know, it’s really slices of oranges ... this sail-like thing could somehow coalesce itself to be a symbol of a city and even more than that, a symbol of the optimism of Australia. My God, architecture can be good. Just imagine, just imagine the expectation that was centred about 200 years that it took to build Chartres Cathedral, mm? Where the builders there would begin as young men and never see the end of it, and it’s coming up and it’s coming up, and it’s pointed like that towards scraping the heavens, which was the attempt of gothic, to come up and there you have something that is a symbol of the human spirit. I think that’s ... like to our heart that is vital.

D: It’s wonderful. And I think you know that is something that really comes across in the Opera House but also I think we ... this is called Salute to Five Bells but I think there is a salute to John Olsen in your courage to actually do something quite elegiac you know that it is a very poetic, mysterious, beautiful work that connects so well with the harbour. And you know I think there’s something about you, John, that comes through so much in your journals and in this beautiful publication which is that sense that no matter how tough things get you seem to be able to get that pendulum to swing back to the magic of nature which is in fact what you went on to do straight after the mural, you were going off on wildlife expeditions and looking at the miracle of frog leaping in the air, of something quite miraculous in nature and so I know that we need to leave some time for questions. I don’t know if you want to say anything about that.

J: Show me the book a minute. I’ll just show you all because after doing the mural you can say well, what do you do next? You see it’s a huge dilemma and there was no facile answer. There’s a drawing of my dilemma. And it’s a hard one but it’s a strange thing that as I’ve grown older like many artists, like Lord Rees for example, can see like a whole thing but what’s happening to me is that I can see the particular beauty of the detail of nature. Like one colour against another colour and it with me it’s happening in a different way, that particularisation and observation of the particular ... repeating the word particular ... and it’s a strange thing and my adv ... and my inner voice says “look but look harder”, you know? And just to see like ... and I am reminded of Auden, that he went and gave a semester to students at Harvard and there they’re all eager to hear what Auden has to say and Auden goes to the tap ... glass of .. glass and fills it full of water and says to the poets, write a poem about that. Now is he really thinking water, mankind? And water? Thirst? Water sharing? Holy? Water in a glass? A prisoner? It goes on and on and on but it begins with the observation of the particular and that’s the thing fascinating me at the moment. For me there is no theory of colour that really works the same and Mark Roscoe talks about this as well, is that like the German theory of Albers, of colour relationships and Roscoe’s own thing is you learn colour by looking and I believe that absolutely because the multiple variations that you get in nature can never be invented. And it’s only when you decide I'll stop and I’m going to look and it’s “Glory be to God for dappled things, for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; for rose-moles upon trout that swim, fresh firecoal, chestnuts, finches’ wings… whatever is fickle, freckled, who knows why?... Praise Him.”

D: Thank you, John, that’s lovely. It’s a good note to end.


R: Thank you, John and thank you, Debra. And thank you, John, for Gerard Manley Hopkins to finish on, how wonderful. It now gives me great pleasure to officially launch My Salute to Five Bells. It’s an exceptional book that provides an insight into the process undertaken by an artist in creating a major work and the pressures, internal and external pressures associated with this. We also benefit from the time and distance between creation of the work and this publication of its genesis. I think recollection and reflection enrich these journal notes of the artist in process and I highly recommend this publication to you.

Before we move onto questions from the audience I’d like to invite Margy Burn, the National Library’s Assistant Director-General for Australian Collections and Reader Services to join me on the stage. Margy, John Olsen’s advised me that he has a very special announcement that he’d like to make today so, John, the floor is yours with Margaret.

J: Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s my great pleasure to give to the Library a book that I only finished yesterday. And it has my predictions about the Archibald Prize, which are entirely wrong. And I forgot that the Archibald Prize which I judged for a number of years, the Archibald Prize is a chook raffle so ...

M: And that you won.

J: I ... so pardon me, and can I write something ... can I read something from this present one?

M: Please do.

J: In which I thought that the portrait of Betty Churcher was the one that I would have voted for. And ... dearie me, just a moment we go… the newspaper has just published a full page of paintings that are accepted for this year’s Archibald Prize. Though there are some ... there are a few paintings that are good sadly, it’s a sorry lot. Overall one ... look, I’ve ...

M: Do you want me to ..? Senses a decline.

J: Senses a decline in ... sorry about this overall one senses a decline in the faith of humanity, as a species we are flawed. The first and second world wars ...

M: And the atom bomb.

J: And the atom bomb confirmed this. The cannon of the Greek ideal of the human figure seemed to be absurd. After the wars, Picasso’s distortions became ...

M: More violent.

J: More violent and all de Kooning’s women and Francis Bacon’s portraits give an image of excreta and slime, humanity down the drain as he wished his own body would go on his death. There is in Lucian Freud’s portraits an attempt to reclaim some of the lost grounds, not always successful, where he imposes the grotesque, what certainly remains is anybody’s ...

M: Anxiety.

J: Anxiety and natural state of man. I think Peter Churcher’s deathbed portrait of his mother would pass ...

M: Profoundly.

J: Profoundly as a statement of the complexity of life. The Archibald Prize has been cursed by ...

M: Some of the ...

J: Some of the entrants’ overuse of photography and not understanding the empathetical eye sees things entirely different from the camera’s lens. That’s so obvious, look, when you’re doing a portrait you are looking at all aspects of that face and I ... and if you’re a good portrait painter you always say to the sitter, keep talking. Because it allows that form of interrogation and you’re putting it onto a single surface, a single surface and so therefore like in a really good portrait there are layers of experience. Now look, I think ... photography is a wonderful thing but the kind of thing that I’m talking about is wow, if you’re good enough. Wow. You know? Because as Yeats put’s it “conceive my heart away tied to a dying animal that knows not what it is”. How wonderful that is and it’s that kind of thing that I think that the human image is so vital to us, because it’s a gaze and a concentration towards humanity. Very important. Very important. Because you know and I’ll use Auden again, “unless we love one another we shall die”. Yeah. And I ... just the last moment I’d like to read a poem of mine on drawing. It’s called A Note on Drawings. First stop in wonder, gaze, all into an interrogative tumble pause, pick up charcoal, mark what is prominent, scarred by life’s furrows, a blackened smear renders time and place, better to struggle and bring Yeats ... no, doing ... better to struggle than doing what Yeats says is difficult than to be shipwrecked by facile fingers. Yeah ...


So it’s my pleasure with the last thoughts to present this to the Library.


M: And it’s the greatest of pleasures to receive it for the Library as you can imagine from what you’ve heard today. Look, the book that you’ve seen the illustrations from is marvellous but that’s just one journal and it’s a journal that the Library acquired in 1995, the original manuscript 20 years after it was compiled ... more than 20 years after it was compiled. And it’s marvellous as you will see when you buy the book and is for those of you who could read the writing. Bill Pidgeon, the artist, wrote in the Opera House Journal of the commission that the Dobell Foundation had awarded to John, that it could not have happened to a nicer bloke, and didn’t you feel that today? You get a sense of John’s journals from the photographs that you saw on the screen today. This is a beautiful, very handsome volume with its lovely marbled covers and its leather binding. John has given us 57 ... now today 58 journals starting since 1966. Many of them are very modest, they’re written if ... I’m sure many of you in this audience will have had office journals in that red plasticky sort of fake leather covering, foolscap size. Some of them are in those, some of them are in much more humble smaller-scale office diaries. There are some higher-quality sketchbooks and higher-quality journals but this is definitely the best. John has a fine pen, his artistry as a penman is no less than his artistry as an artist. He ... despite the modesty of the volumes that he used the contents are stunning, the writing is really graceful as you can imagine from having heard him speak today and they are full of thousands of spontaneous sketches as well as deep reflection about his experiences, his ... what was happening in his life and the creative process of creating art.

Some of the volumes mostly contain John’s drawings and sketches on a field trip, for example, some contain more text. The journals record his travels in Australia and overseas, his work, his immense zest for life. They contain sketch drawings of people, places and animals, wild creatures and I think beloved pets and they’re in many media, pencil, ink, gouache, water colour. What’s apparent is his compulsive impulse to draw. There are sketches made on envelopes and stuck into the journals, there are sketches made on bills. There are sketches made on prescriptions. All these ... and there are many Polaroid photographs, the sort of selfie of yesteryear. So all of this rich imagery serves as visual notes, I think, for later finished artworks as well as feeding the compulsion. The ... John’s writings are wide-ranging, they’re very empathic and they’re mostly extremely warm and generous commentary on the art world. They’re a really lively and informative record of John’s own art practice, his interests and experiences and of course they record the life of a deeply admired and very significant and much loved Australian, and so with his capacity for thoughtful reflection, for insightful and sensitive observation, for the records of his daily life, what he’s reading, what he’s eating, recipes he wants to cook, as well as for the record of his artistic practice, they’re the most wonderful and generous gift and we really are very honoured to have them and I’m delighted that so many of you could share in noting John’s further generosity in presenting his journals to the National Library today. Thank you.


R: Thank you, Margy and again thank you, John, what fantastic news for the National Library. Now you can view John’s journals at some time in the future. The democracy of the National Library is fantastic. We now have time for just maybe one or two questions. If you have a question for John please raise your hand and Kathryn or Sharyn will bring a microphone to you. This event’s being recorded and to ensure that all of the audience members also can hear the question it’s important that your questions are asked into the microphone. Is there anyone with a question?

A: Oh hi, my name is Matthew. I’m a local artist in north Canberra and right now what I’m holding is some illustrations from your ... from a recent autobiographic ... recent biographic book of yours and every chapter I just drew a moment in your life. So I just can’t wait to see thos drawings online. So you know what? I have a question, I just noticed that early in your life you spent time in the Yass Valley and there’s ... so the simple question is when was the last time you visit Yass?

J: Comprehensively? A long time ago. It was like ... my mother took me there, me and my sister during the war because of the dangers ... Sydney was a dangerous place to be, so she thought ... but look, I was about 13 and it ... and being from Sydney I had the opportunity to walk over the hills and I had the opportunity of the river and it was a rural experience and it was something that really was very important for me.

R: Thank you.

A: That was you.

J: I can’t see that.

R: That’s lovely, I think it’s a little difficult to see from here, perhaps we might have a look later on?

A: Okay.

R: Thank you very much. Is there another question? Yes, down the front ... oh, yes, along ... and that will be the last one.

B: Oh Mr Olsen, the subject of Five Bells, Joe Lynch, is himself an artist, a black and white artist, I believe. Do you know anything about his works?

J: No, I know nothing about it. No, he was also a sculptor but Slessor admired him very much. That ‘20s, 30s period was a very good period of Australian cartoons and satirical drawings. Smith’s Weekly which I mentioned before was really a soldiers’ newspaper but they had like oh eight very, very good cartoonists, but it’s a very good question you ask and it should be investigated.

B: Thank you.

R: One very last question at the front.

C: Hi, I just wanted to ask you about your perspective on a sense of place. I’ve heard you talk about it and how important it is to you and I just wanted to ask is it sort of based around ethnicity or geography or is it simply knowing who you are and where you belong?

J: Yes, it’s ... look, it’s not the primary source that makes Dickens great but by God, it helped. And if we are familiar ... of course we are ... with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky the sense of place is the platform from where you speak. It’s by far not everything, it’s not ... but there is a security in it that you know what you’re talking about, you know, and I consider that that is a very important thing. You see, the bother in visual arts the moment is that this pretending globalisation in which the ideas of the avant garde principally come out of say, Germany at the moment, America during abstract expressionism, and London, and if we lose our sense of place ... you see Beckett is Irish and it contains the Irish wit about it and I think that if Beckett had been writing in Australia he’d be writing about swagmen waiting for Godot. So it’s only the beginning but I say to young artists, get rooted.

C: You could take that both ways, couldn’t you?

R: Thank you for that wonderful question and that extraordinary answer, John. Unfortunately our time is now up. That brings us to the end of the formalities of today’s launch but we do invite you upstairs for a cup of tea. Copies of My Salute to Five Bells are available from the National Library bookshop. If you're a member of the Friends, a 15% discount as usual. If you’re not a member, you will surely think to join today and you can talk to Dennis upstairs about that on our desk. But you’ll still receive 10% discount on all of the books that you purchase this afternoon. John Olsen has kindly offered to stay behind and sign coffees for ... copies, not coffees ... sign copies for us, but please join us upstairs for coffee and tea. Thank you very much indeed.


End of recording