Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Inspiration guided the person who coined the title of this memoir. Son of the Brush allows the writer to give the reading public information about the writer’s famous father – his virtues and vices, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses while making available information about himself, one of the recognized business leaders in Sydney. The Brush is John Olsen, the son is gallery owner Tim.
The first half of the memoir has a focus on the father; the son and the other family members and relatives play a supporting role. We know the tale will be colourful by the interchange with the judge when heavily-pregnant Valerie Strong sought a divorce in order to marry John Olsen (11 – 12). The descriptions of John, “cutting a romantic figure and kitted out like a debonair poet; with his enormous charm and bravado, he possessed an animal magnetism that attracted everyone in his orbit” (5).
John is a larger than life character. He gives the impression that the accepted rules of society do not apply to him. The author tells the story of his father and mother living in a hippie camp, his father along with other artists painting nude day after day. Everyone skinny-dipped except Valerie (Tim’s mother) who refused to be nude in public (36), but loved to sun topless on her verandah at home. “It was at Dunmoochin that I first came to understand not only the sexual debauchery of this artists’ society but also its petty jealousies” (39), best shown in the envy that greeted John’s success with The Chasing Bird Landscape in 1969. It was a decadent life, its environment described in Tim’s inimitable fashion as: “Imagine a painting by Frederick McCubbin scripted by David Williamson, with a touch of Dante, all marinated in red wine” (36). I’m envious!
Tim’s treatment of his mother Valerie is no different than his depiction of other characters but, in some way, she rises above the rest. She is a good wife and mother and stands out in her individual way as John does in his. A significant part of the memoir is the tragic failure of this couple to make a long-lasting time together. This atmosphere seeps into the consciousness of the reader, while the writer seems unknowing of it. A highly competent artist in her own right with the courage to make something of her life when John leaves her, Valerie is written out of the John Olsen story, her character unblemished. Meanwhile, Tim Olsen’s memories are revealed, little by little, through the actions of his father.
The author demonstrates superior skill as a raconteur. Much of the material he presents with so much charm originated with his father. The older man took up art because, in a Marist Catholic boarding school, he was the best at drawing women’s tits. He often referred to Klee’s quote about a drawing being ‘a line going for a walk’, and so a day devoted to art was also taking a line for a walk (18). On the other hand, Tim demonstrates an understanding of civilization at a much deeper level. “Culture is about a body of moral and ethical values that can surround each individual who descends from us. / The maintenance of cultural integrity is the maintenance of human civilization itself” (109). These are not John Olsen’s words; these are purely Tim.
Part Two of the memoir puts Tim in the middle of the frame. John has been moved out of the glare of the spotlight. We begin to realize some of the pain of growing up with a famous parent. Tim has a tough time entering art school. “The humility of an art apprenticeship was far more preferable to the abject misery of an unsatisfying job” (115). While continuing to meet the art school’s requirements Tim subtly slips in his goal that he intends to be an art dealer.
The memoir reveals that the way ahead is not smooth. There are illness issues, drug addiction and dishonesty, issues faced by youth across the world. Tim’s memoir details how one man found his way back. Tim’s account of his time at the altar on the day of his marriage to Harriet would be familiar to young men of his generation. “…the whole thing was not quite authentic, that I was no being honest with myself – or anyone else – about truly being deeply “in love” (193). An older generation would have ideas about fairness to his bride Harriet.
Tim convinces readers that at base he is a decent human being and does not hide that he has significant human weaknesses. His memoir shows that he has overcome his challenges as he continues to play a leading part in giving back to his community. As an aid to gaining knowledge about John Olsen and as a vehicle that bares what weaknesses can beset a good man, this memoir makes fine reading.
By Tim Olsen
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 978-1-74331- 805-8
$34.99; 496 pp