Patrick McCaughey reviews 'John Olsen' by Darleen Bungey

Eight years ago Darleen Bungey published a revelatory biography of Arthur Boyd. She cast shadows across the ‘idyllic’ Open Country years where the extended Boyd family lived in suburban Murrumbeena and unflinchingly detailed his declining, alcoholic years at Bundanon. Bungey’s compelling new biography of John Olsen has its share of revelations. Olsen’s weak and inadequate father wound up destitute on the streets of Sydney, largely sustained by handouts from his son. Boyd was an intensely private man, friendly but reclusive. Olsen has been a public figure for most of his long career, reaching back to the early 1950s when he emerged from the Julian Ashton school as the star student of the difficult and demanding John Passmore. Boyd was dead before Bungey published her biography. John Olsen, happily, remains a boisterous octogenarian, going strong in art and life. A living subject is not always to the biographer’s advantage. Bungey can sound like a cheerleader: ‘Like Jay Gatsby, John was a man from an impoverished childhood with a mind for enquiry, a hunger for romance and a need for invention.’

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Published in March 2015, no. 369

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