Tim Olsen on getting out from under the shadow of his famous father John: ‘He’s not a demigod’

Where there is artistic acclaim there is often collateral damage. History is littered with redundant muses, discarded partners, children left behind. It can take a certain ruthlessness to live for art, in a heightened state of intensity, making it the only thing that matters.

In the 60s the art critic Robert Hughes described John Olsen as a person who “disregards what matters to others, the things in between”. For Olsen’s son, Tim, his father’s painting was “a crucible undisputed in our house”. The art came first; an absolute compulsion for the artist, and the family revolved around it. “We protected it like a ritual flame that had to be relit each morning,” Tim writes in his newly published memoir, Son of the Brush.

Tim and his younger sister, Louise (known these days as one of the artists behind the hugely successful homewares and jewellery label Dinosaur Designs), grew up with the smell of gum turpentine, almost inside the great works that now hang in state galleries. “Dwarfed by canvases that loomed like vast apostles,” Tim writes.

Described by many as Australia’s greatest living artist, John Olsen, at 92, is still painting large-scale canvases at his home in the New South Wales southern highlands. To young Tim, his father was a deity, a sun king, whom he idealised. But he also instinctively understood, as he writes in his memoir, that “I would never have that luminescence. Strong sunlight casts a long shadow.”

Tim’s mother, Valerie Strong – “interesting, gentle and loving”, according to John’s biographer Darleen Bungey – had been a married art student when she came under the magnetic pull of Olsen. She gave birth to Tim two weeks after she married the artist in 1962.

Tim’s early years were spent in a fisherman’s cottage at Watsons Bay, in Sydney, with his parents. His father would take him for a swim every morning and meet the fishing boats. (To this day, Tim remains a morning ocean swimmer.) There the garrulous, passionate John, a man of large appetites, would cook great pans of paella and entertain his friends – Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Barry Humphries, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd among them.

Speaking to Guardian Australia by phone, Tim says of his father: “He often says to me when you look at a great painting you should be able to taste it.” John was, he says, the centrifugal force. Sleeping under dinner tables with these “magnificent people” in full flight, the Olsen children were steeped in art from birth: “The objects around us educated our subconscious as much as what we were later taught.”

Those early days were so perfect, Tim writes, that “this perception infected everything that came after, setting the summit of life far too high”.

In 1969 the family moved to Dunmoochin, an artists’ community in Victoria owned by the painter Clifton Pugh, where sexual liberation was in full swing. John painted a new landscape in a new palate alongside Pugh and Fred Williams. But for the children the commune was damaging. Tim writes that he saw “things that a child really should not see”, including his father’s sexual escapades with people other than his mother. He also saw the petty jealousies. After his father won the Wynne prize, Tim was ambushed by eight kids who urinated on his face saying: “You and your Dad are fucking arseholes.”

Through the pain of her husband’s infidelities, Valerie continued to paint. “When I look at the difference between my father’s work and my mother’s,” recalls Tim during our conversation, of John’s great topographical works, “Dad liked to get above the landscape and say, ‘Hey, this is my land.’ You know, that’s an ego thing. It’s male-dominated, conquering. My mother would creep in like a gumnut baby and look around the bush in a way that she belonged to it.”

After 20 years of marriage, John left a devastated Valerie, moving to Clarendon in South Australia for a doomed and turbulent marriage to the artist Noela Hjorth. “He just disappeared on us,” Louise has said. Tim says that in these years, John was “invisible”.

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