Mediterranean Paradise: artists and the kitchen: David Strachan and John Olsen

Examination of the work of David Strachan and John Olsen from the 1950s in Europe to Australia in the 1980s and the pleasures of painting and food. Linking of painting with the recipes and philosophies of Elizabeth David.

The Good Cook.
All culinary tasks should be performed with reverential love ... The requisite outfit of culinary skill and temperament – that is hardly more than saying that a soldier must appear in uniform. The true cook must have not only those externals, but a large dose of general worldly experience. He is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. If she drinks a little, why, it is all to the good ... It proves she possesses the prime requisite of the artist: sensitiveness and a capacity for enthusiasm.
From South Wind by Norman Douglas, cited in A Book of Mediterranean Food, 1950, by Elizabeth David.

John Olsen was living near Deya in the mountains of Majorca, above the Mediterranean Sea, when in December 1958 he told his diary: "In the past year I have learned to cook, to make a fire, prepare a canvas ...".

He was there because friends lived in Majorca and because it was extremely cheap, Dictator Franco's Spain being little visited by tourists. The thirty-year-old artist on a scholarship from Sydney had struggled to afford Paris. The accidental grounding in Spain was an epiphany.

With an American artist girlfriend, Dorothy Houston, he settled in a peasant house among terraced hillsides: "We cooked fabulous things, often from Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food, using a charcoal fire ... We lived on $14 a week quite easily, and felt this was a life closer to its essence".
The previous year in Ibizia he was already enthralled by the un-Australian gorgeousness of fresh foodstuff, red and green peppers, purple aubergines. Elizabeth David loved colour too but Olsen says it was not so much Mrs David's Mediterranean recipes that impressed him as the attitude expressed in the title of a later book of essays, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. He admires in this sensually alert woman: "Not only a passion but also poetic".

Elizabeth David's 'poetic' is found in her description of a memorable autumn meal of "startling simplicity". "A friend brought me fresh Normandy butter and new-laid eggs. Anxious that those eggs should lose nothing of their fresh bloom, and wanting to share the feast with a favourite guest, I decided it should consist simply of perfectly boiled eggs, and fresh brown bread spread with that lovely butter, to be followed by a pound of English field mushrooms, grilled, buttery and black, their flavour unmatched during the brief autumn week of their season. After the mushrooms we had Cornice pears, which were at their wonderful best that particular day."

That was in England, her reminder that a pastoral paradise could be found anywhere, not only in France and the Mediterranean. And let's note an anti-Mediterranean view by Pierre Restany, a French art critic finding paradise in Australia: "Ah, the food! It's what Greek cuisine should be, if only Greece had good raw materials". (I suppose he meant the lamb.) So let me digress to Greece and my own most memorable meal, in a tourist-trap restaurant at Piraeus. White linen on tables on a sandy beach, after dark; very yellow white wine; egg-lemon soup; a whole white fish, grilled, chunks of green-skinned lemon; fresh peaches, yellow chunks among ice cubes. Not micro-seasonal like the English mushrooms and pears, but the large scale, the pure tastes, the very limited colours – white, yellow, green – gave it a startling simplicity. At the seaport of Athens, in the late 1970s, Classicism met Minimalism.

The poetic of extreme simplicity, before Olsen's encounter with David's Mediterranean Food, was already being articulated in terms of Zen union with nature. Reading Herrigal's Zen in the Art of Archery and, especially, D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, Olsen told his Balearic journal: "The joy of listening to running water gurgling, rushing, gushing down the mountain. The quiet observation of a cloud in movement, simplicity of dress and cloth made of strong aesthetic material, a room that has warmth and a sense of life and individuality, even a meal that is excellent but made of extremely simple ingredients – I am sure this is the practical ethic of 'Wabi'".
The year Olsen learned to cook, after two years in Europe, he and David Strachan together made 1958 Christmas dinner at Deya for Paul Haefliger and his wife Jean Bellette.

Strachan was nine years older than Olsen, had spent two teenage art student years in pre-war Europe and had returned to Paris in 1948. The following year he wrote to his parents saying he planned to open a restaurant so that he would not be a burden on them. Nothing came of it, but he did become an excellent French cook. His 1950–55 apartment at 4 Rue de Chatillon had a happy kitchen, memorialised in three 1956 paintings.

Batterie de Cuisine, a painting from a photograph taken in Paris, contains knives and choppers, a corkscrew, nutcrackers in a white bowl, a metal cooking dish. Strachan owned the original hardback edition of Elizabeth David's Mediterranean Food, with its charming blue illustrations by John Minton (Olsen had the 1955 Penguin paperback), and one thinks of the first paragraph of her introduction: "The cooking of the Mediterranean shores ... is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes from the kitchen pans".

Still life with potatoes displays the paring knife again, a wire strainer, a fluted white jug containing a stirrer and on the wall a couple of garlic bulbs. One thinks of the second and third paragraphs of Elizabeth David's introduction: "It is honest cooking too; none of the sham Grande Cuisine of the International Palace Hotel. 'It is not really an exaggeration', wrote Marcel Boulestin, 'to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking'". Pivoines blanches rhymes the white peonies in a vase with a white cauliflower, its leaves freshly trimmed with another familiar knife; two chairs and a folded-back table cloth are in the picture so the work table is ready to be transformed into a shared dining table.

These three farewells to the Paris apartment and to the pleasure of cooking for friends are blue and white, a generic kitchenware blue and white, of tiles, china and enamels. (When Olsen, with the potter Robert Main, made a sixteen-person dinner service for Terry Whelan it was Mediterranean blue and white.) More than Olsen's own paintings Strachan's kitchen pieces have the austerity of Zen 'Wabi'. Their extreme simplicity, and that of the lemons and oranges painting in Majorca and Australia (where he died untimely in 1970), derives directly from Spanish seventeenth-century still-life painting. Strachan had seen in Paris the great 1952 exhibition La Nature Morte de l'Antiquité a nos Jours with Zurbarán's flowering branches of oranges and bowls of lemons, Cotán's apples, opened pumpkins and cabbages.

Strachan and Olsen both returned to Sydney in 1960. Their friends immediately shared a new food culture, especially after they settled in permanent homes, Strachan in Paddington in 1962, Olsen at Watson's Bay in 1963. I remember talking to Strachan in his kitchen while he serenely and interminably made fine pastry. I remember the extraordinary colour compositions of Olsen's food in his timber fisherman's cottage: purple cabbage, saffron. The painter William Rose remembers Olsen in 1960 making a sheep's head soup learnt in Deya.

Miró's Surrealism and Dubuffet were contemporary influences on Olsen's art, and we can assume he fancied, besides sheep's heads for actual cooking, the wilder images in Elizabeth David's writing, vivid evocations of taste and colour, pattern and noise: " ... the oil, the saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in the kitchen; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs, and limes; the great heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermilion, or tiger-striped ... the butchers' stalls festooned with every imaginable portion of the inside of every edible animal (anyone who has lived for long in Greece will be familiar with the sound of air gruesomely whistling through sheep's lungs frying in oil)".

The recipe as literary form, concise and haiku-like, was perhaps Elizabeth David's greatest achievement. Olsen, whose 1997 memoir, Drawn from Life, is full of poetry and recipes, and whose 1960s Sydney paintings are markedly tentacular, must have loved her instructions for octopus: "Coat your hands with coarse salt, grab each tentacle hard, and pull. The skin peels off".

Paintings of food are reproduced throughout Deborah Hart's major study of Olsen's work. The Picnic, 1965, painted in Sydney, where he did have paella picnics on the beach at Watsons Bay with his second wife Valerie and small children Tim and Louise, is in fact a memory of Majorca. "Paella is for outdoor picnics, for Spanish men to cook, like Australian men doing the barbecue. The dog has a fish in its mouth, the pan on a square fire contains chook, eel, fish, heart. Paella is an attempted unity of saffron rice, mussels, prawns, pork, chicken, chorizo sausage, peas, onions, peppers ... These days I've grown to dislike it".

Two Portuguese kitchen paintings of 1966, one painted at Castelo de Vide while working on tapestries at Portalegre, the other back in Sydney, are kitchens that were also communal living rooms. A child-art young Tim is at a blue-and-white checked table, an egg waits to become mayonnaise, red-trunked cork trees are seen through a window, human bodily features are exaggerated – tired feet, mouth, eyes – and metamorphose into food (duck) or implements (a spoon). These works are filled with love of children and of delight in performing for children.

Love in the kitchen, 1969, is titled ironically. It's Clifton Pugh's vast living-room kitchen at Dunmoochin, near Melbourne, the heart of a commune where the Olsens lived for two years. "Clif quarrelling with his wife Marlene. Two cats, a chook, a duck, a big broken egg at the centre, sun and gum trees through window, lots of secondhand timber building materials, a small axe, oops – everything off balance."

Duck à l'orange, 1981, is from the beginning of Olsen's seven years at Clarendon, with his third wife Noela Hjorth, in the McLaren Vale wine region south of Adelaide. There on a steep terraced hillside he grew vegetables, lived among vineyards and olive plantations in the most Mediterranean of all his Australian homes. His best food paintings were to be made at Clarendon, though this is also a memory of 1956 Paris. "The Haefligers, David Strachan and myself used to meet often at a small restaurant called La Tombe, opposite the Montparnasse Cemetery. It was here I had duck à l'orange. As a little Ozzie bleeder wet behind the ears, I considered it a miracle. Though I haven't attempted it for years I still do. The painting has a memory of the child Tim with a heart beside him again, the table is one that stayed with Valerie and the children, there's a blue & white Portuguese plate. A yellow egg rhymes with the yellow sun seen through a window above a McLaren Vale landscape. Oh, those lovely orange & yellow colours contrasted with the cracked brown skin – like my aged face [1999]. In his old age John Olsen has a face like Duck l'Orange."

Six years later Olsen completed his sublime Broken egg and summer landscape in which a luscious golden egg has at last escaped the kitchen to spill and run, sun-like, over a straw-coloured brazen landscape. It's a symbol, says Deborah Hart, "of life and fertility". In her book the reproduction is accompanied by Olsen's only published poem, Eggs & Summer Landscape, 1987.

Let's break the eggs of summer,
Tortillas, sheep tracks –
Lamb's wool stuck on
barbed wire
Eggs shall stain the sun's
burn on dry grass.
Eggs on my face as well.
the line I draw shall wind
a while.
Flowers growing, flowers dying.
Dr Birdsley sipping his
summer wine.
The village horse lady is
looking at old saddles,
A general store asleep
with drowsy test matches;
Oh! break the eggs of summer.
The suffocating flavour
of dry dust.

Goya's dog and paella, 1986, is another Clarendon subject, with steep hillside steps. "Spain was an epiphany; I could see how limited our 1950s life in Australia had been. These Spanish images stayed with me. At Clarendon our beagle, a notorious wanderer, was named Picasso. A local restaurant would often phone, 'Picasso's here, come and get him'. Here he's eating, from his own bowl, some paella offcuts".

Finally Donde Voy? Self-portraits in moments of doubt, 1989, two rough self-portraits looking at each other in blackness and asking, in Spanish, "Where am I going?". Olsen in the Blue Mountains, just married to his fourth wife, was "reflecting on life and human relationships". "The paintings had been standing there for three months. I had a dream about Velásquez's An old woman cooking eggs, and suddenly I had the answer. Although I never paint in artificial light (I agree with Degas that only criminals work at night) I got up, went to the canvas and, in belle matière, painted in the egg. It became the universe."