Justin Paton on John Olsen

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

John Olsen

Five bells

1963
oil on hardboard
Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 1999
© John Olsen. Licensed by Copyright Agency

Sometimes – not often enough – I take the watery way home.

Instead of heading through the city to a bus, I wander down through the Botanic Garden to the curve of Woccanmagully (Farm Cove), following the sloshing edge of the harbour to the ferry at Warrane (Circular Quay). After a day of emails and screens, it’s a relief to look at the water – to let its light and movement enter my head and wash the day’s deadlines away.

With these moments in mind, I look again at John Olsen’s Five bells, a picture that has always struck me as presenting some kind of water-mind or harbour-head – a portrait of a being so obsessed by the ocean that they’ve become the water they see.

As the natural world tells us, in a million ways, that our actions affect it irreparably, perhaps we need to open and irrigate our ideas of what a portrait can be – to see places as beings which, like us, can think and feel and perceive.

This beautiful blue monster, with its blue nerves and tendrils, opens these questions for me. If the harbour is a mind, what is it thinking? When it looks at us, what does it see?

Justin Paton is head curator of international art. Blue is his favourite colour

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