Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020
Described as a memoir, Son of the Brush does indeed introduce us to some of the key figures of the art world in Australia in the 20th and 21st century, in the context of the life of the author, son of painter John Olsen.
Tim Olsen grew up surrounded by people we now consider luminaries, but it is the personal, the candid appraisal of self and family that touched me most deeply in this book.
With a strikingly modest and self-aware honesty, Tim speaks of a puzzled childhood in the sixties amidst the artists’ community at Dunmoochin, of his constant and life-long quest to earn his father’s approval, of the various family ructions, his father’s philandering, his mother’s grief, steadfastness and later life happiness, of his struggles with alcohol abuse and with relationships, of the vicissitudes of finding his own milieu and sense of self worth.
There is a great deal here for the reader and it is wonderfully well-written. I found myself scribbling down passages of prose so that I could return to savour them. In a life that must seem to the onlooker as at times fraught, at times heady, Tim Olsen speaks in this book with as much passion for the ordinary in life as for the sublime in art. He understands the centrality of family as an anchor to sanity and happiness.
Tim’s life was an ongoing education in the arts and he has, in his role as gallerist, sought to share this expertise with the public and to support artists, particularly those who bring an X factor.
His accounts of exhibition openings made me laugh aloud. It’s absolutely clear-eyed, and perhaps we see there something of the cynicism of the ‘business’ of art.
However, at no time do we see in Tim the rapaciousness we have come to associate with that side of the ‘industry’. In fact, I see still the young lad beneath the table with his thirst for knowledge and his need for recognition and love.
While Tim alludes to a long list of the known and famous in this work, one doesn’t feel he is name-dropping. It’s just that Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler, the Whiteleys etc were in his normal world. Equally when describing an artists’ lunch in 2020 in his Sydney gallery, it is not the glitterati we recall but his presentation of the Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem beloved of his father, Pied Beauty. Here is an homage to the beauty of all things, but especially things sometimes denigrated – the different, the brindled, the counter. It’s part of that search for beauty that most cogently defines art.
The currency of this book is indicated in the final chapters when Tim speaks of his flight to New York in 2020 at the beginnings of the COVID period. He made the sound decision to not renew the lease on the Olsen Gruin Gallery in New York, flew home and contracted COVID 19.
His anxiety at the possibility of harming others above any anxiety for his own health speaks volumes. His commitment to the world-wide recognition of Australian art is more than a legacy of his life as John Olsen’s son.
Tim has fought demons in many areas of his life, not least in that relationship with his father, but he has shared with us the dignity and joy of forgiveness and of ‘the generous embrace and patience of a family I will always be grateful for.’
I highly commend this to all interested in contemporary Australia, in Australian biography, and in art and society. It is a beautifully crafted book, embellished with family photographs, and holds the reader’s attention to the last word.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for the review copy and for facilitating my interview with Tim Olsen. It was such a deep pleasure and privilege for me.