Important Australian + International Fine Art
25 November 2009

John Olsen

born 1928

watercolour and pastel on paper

94.0 x 99.0 cm

signed and inscribed lower right: John Olsen / Chats at Cooper’s Creek

$50,000 - 70,000
Sold for $72,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 12 - 25 November 2009, Melbourne

Corporate collection, Melbourne
Lawson~Menzies, Sydney, 22 July 2003, lot 18A
Private collection, Sydney

Catalogue text

The Crimson Chat is a small migratory bird native to Australia. Usually found in semi-arid environments, Chats generally inhabit the fringe areas of wet regions and have plumage of a soft grey and brilliant crimson.

In 1974 Lake Eyre flooded for the second time in 200 years. What had previously been one of the harshest environments in Australia, it's 'dead heart', was now brimming with life, the shores of the new lake alive with flora and fauna. John Olsen, hearing of the phenomena from the naturalist Vincent Serventy, was instantly captivated. The lake itself presented as a paradox; an 'ocean' within a desert, its edges ringed with life, the centre a vast, engulfing void. As Olsen noted:

'The enigma of it all. It is a desert and it can be full' It has an effect on you when you are there because all the time it is impossible for you to accept fully the sense of impermanence and transitoriness. Somehow it affects you 'you realize that you are looking at an illusion really. I don't think that there is anything more Buddhist than that.'1

From his initial visit to the lake, Olsen harboured a desire to travel to its centre, to a point of complete immersion where no land could be seen. Stuart Purves, director of the Australian Galleries, had accompanied Olsen on the trip and made arrangements for a boat, commenting: 'It seemed extraordinary dragging a boat through kilometers of desert. We spent about five days living on the lake, which was the thing that John had always wanted to do - to go to these islands where no one had been before and to get the sense of the vastness of it. For him, Lake Eyre was the globe, in a way, and the islands were like countries and the birds were like messengers and we were able to camp out on the islands and feel on our own - We thought of early explorers while we were there and we read from Alan Moorehead's book when we were at the mouth of Cooper's Creek.'2

In 1975, Olsen and Serventy flew over Cooper's Creek which the flood had expanded to several hundred kilometres wide. Like Cooper's Creek in Flood, on loan to the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Chats at Cooper's Creek presents the landscape as viewed from above, the creek's edges with its flocks of brilliant Chats forming lyrical incursions into the void.

1. the artist quoted in Hart, D., John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p. 135
2. ibid., p. 138