The John Olsen Story

Rebecca Varidel
25th May 2023

John Olsen Australian Story A Brilliant Canvas presented bt Leigh Sales airs Monday, 29 May, 8pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

On Easter Saturday, 95-year-old artist John Olsen made the final touches to four paintings and feeling unwell, laid down his paintbrush for the last time. A stroke had finally felled the old master and, surrounded by his family, he died peacefully at home shortly after.  On the day of his state funeral, Australian Story revisits the Olsens, a family forged by John Olsen’s passion and drive for painting. As John became a darling of the art world in the 60s and 70s, his ruthless dedication to his art often cast a long shadow on those he left behind.

“Everything in his life was for his genius to be protected, and he was ruthless about that”, says art historian Barry Pearce. “And he would walk away from a relationship if it meant to preserve better his genius.” 

Daughter Louise forged her place in the design world, founding an iconic company and his son Tim established his own gallery and became an art dealer. But Tim’s complex relationship with his famous father fuelled an addiction to alcohol that would almost bring his life and work undone.  

“Parents can cast shadow and great light. Even though he casts great light for me, it became a shadow”, says Tim. “That I would never be as interesting as him.”   

Even after his death, Olsen is still making a splash. His art is being projected on the “greatest blank canvas on earth” - the sails of the Sydney Opera House - as part of the Vivid Festival of Light.  

His children will be there to marvel at his work and celebrate the life that has shaped them.  

“We were there able to watch him in the studio create some of these paintings over the years, and to see them come alive and projected on the sails of the Opera House is an incredible dream.” Louise Olsen.

To watch previous episodes of Australian Story on ABC iview, click on the link