Shortlist year: 2015

Shortlist category: Non-fiction

Published by: ABC Books (HarperCollins Publishers)

This biography graphically depicts the forces that drove John Olsen to become one of Australia's greatest artists.

An exhilarating book, both trenchant and tender, it strips away the veneer of showmanship and fame to show the substance of a painter driven by a need to depict his country's landscape as Australians had never seen it before.

From a child who was never taken to an art gallery, Olsen became the famous artist in the black beret, the writer and poet, the engaging public speaker, the bon vivant—whose life has been defined by an absolute need to paint.

About the author

Darleen Bungey

Darleen Bungey has been an advertising copywriter, an associate editor and writer for British magazines, and a freelance journalist.

In 1999 she began researching her seminal biography of Arthur Boyd, which was published to critical acclaim in 2007 and for which she was awarded a PhD. It won the Dobbie Literary Award and the Australian Book Industry Award for Biography of the Year.

Judges’ comments

Darleen Bungey has reconstructed Olsen's progress, starting with his childhood, crushed by a father who was distant, dissolute, an alcoholic and gambler.

The strong spirit that helped Olsen seek a cure for a speech impediment and enrol in evening art classes also steered him to a new worldview in Dattilo-Rubbo's atelier in Pitt Street, Sydney. Later, he continued to develop as an artist in the United Kingdom, France and Spain.

After returning to Australia in the 1960s, he developed a lifelong bond with the landscape, and became a prominent figure in the visual arts of the nation.

While exploring Olsen's pictures and story with insight and eloquence, Bungey takes the reader through decades of social change in Australia.