Patrick McCaughey reviews 'John Olsen' by Darleen Bungey

Patrick McCaughey reviews 'John Olsen' by Darleen Bungey


by by Darleen Bungey

ABC Books, $59.99 hb, 516 pp, 9780733331138

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.’

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Published in March 2015, no. 369
Patrick McCaughey

Patrick McCaughey

Patrick McCaughey is former Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut, and the Yale Center for British Art. His most recent book is Strange Country: Why Australian Painting Matters (2014). His other works include Voyage and Landfall: The Art of Jan Senbergs (2006). He also edited Bert & Ned: The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan (2006). He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and Australian Book Review. He lives and works on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in New Haven.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.