Son of the Brush
Allen & Unwin
‘Conceptual art is often too obsessed with the ‘wow and now’. To me, it’s the resonance of the image always evolving that is most important, as we, too, emotionally awaken. That is what keeps us coming back to look at things again, and maintains our fascination for great art. The big result from engaging with and loving art is that, in time, we learn to understand ourselves better, and experience the evolution and maturing of our own souls.’
The Olsen name has long been regarded as that of Australian art royalty, with revered artist John Olsen arguably the sovereign. ‘Son of the Brush’ is a frank memoir shedding light on the personal and professional life of the artist’s only son, Tim Olsen. A detailed recount of events traversing the art dealer and gallerist’s early childhood to present day, Olsen’s story is part celebration, part confessional; unfurling the art scene (both nationally and internationally, past and present) and owning his identity and place within it, and within his family.
The book is a page-turner, written in a conversational tone, allowing the reader to imagine they are sitting with Olsen as he divulges memories and insights, gossip and quips on the riches of life: family, friends, art, dancing and dining – and does not restrain on the lavish details. Meticulously researched and aided by journals and letters penned by his parents, every subject and name in the book is accompanied by a well-illustrated background; the author describing that ‘The reflection, discussion and research that have gone into this book have been almost cathartic.’ Like an exchange with any enthusiastic raconteur, at times the focus is side stepped off topic – unclear whether in doing so the tale being told is enhanced, or included to reveal the storyteller as a great source of knowledge.
All matters are open for discussion in the bare-all publication – the dissolution of marriages, family dynamics, sex scandals, death, grief, and issues of addiction, fame and finances. In respect of the latter, Olsen doesn’t hold back in detailing the unjust behaviours of his father’s previous gallerists and the difficulty of the relationships between the artist and his dealers; which the reader is positioned to understand, informs Olsen’s current practice. Olsen also offers a pithy review of auction houses, writing ‘A lot of auction houses present themselves as institutions of integrity, representing centuries of honour and trust. But more and more we hear stories about them behaving like nothing more than shameless hustlers while presenting themselves as gentlemen in Savile Row suits.’
‘John’ and ‘Dad’ are employed interchangeably throughout the book, perhaps referencing the different associations Olsen has of Dad: the idolised father figure, and John: the iconic painter. Regardless of the at times strained relationship Olsen has had with his father and the challenges and struggles the family has faced collectively and individually, the Olsen’s are described as a close family unit whose legacy is much more than that of the sovereign’s alone – attributed to the zest for art, life and work that John and Valerie (Olsen’s late mother) imparted on their family. ‘Unknowingly, we kids got an unusual work ethic from watching our parents sticking at their art through feast and famine… The unspoken credo in our house was that anything was allowed except mediocrity. You can’t throw in the brush!’
Alice Dingle is a Sydney-based arts writer.