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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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John Olsen

In their own words

Recorded 1962

John Olsen
Audio: 2 minutes

I was brought up in a background where I saw no paintings whatsoever. And how does a painter start? A painter starts simply by perhaps drawing in his mother’s cookery books, no piece of paper is ever safe, and I was one of those species, I suppose.

Leaving school, no idea what I wanted to do except this insatiable scribbling which always seemed to get me into trouble. No future whatsoever, I was always told. Still, you can’t help yourself; it’s like a disease, art, you know, galloping art in the tertiary stages, and when you’ve got it, there’s sort of very little that you can do about it.

As regards the art gallery or pictures like that, my whole background precluded any sort of close contact with art galleries or anything like that. As a consequence, even though I drew all the time, the idea of ever being an artist seemed to be far too big for me. Anyway, I went to an art school, firstly with the idea of being a cartoonist, and then I became so interested in just ordinary painting that I decided to take a plunge.

So, I went to an art school, a classical sort of art school, for about six to seven years, and then comes the big thing; what have you got to say? And you’re still further away, perhaps, than your original start when you were so fresh. The idea is that you now know how art goes, but you’re still not sure how you go. So, the big struggle then, and it’s then that you’re really on your own, that you begin to try and express yourself.

Acknowledgements

This oral history of John Olsen is from the De Berg Collection in the National Library of Australia. For more information, or to hear full versions of the recordings, visit the National Library of Australia website.

Audio source

National Library of Australia, Hazel de Berg collection

Related people

John Olsen AO CBE

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency