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Published  04/06/2002
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The Boyds; Australian Gothic: a life of Albert Tucker; Sidney Nolan – book reviews

The Boyds; Australian Gothic: a life of Albert Tucker; Sidney Nolan – book reviews

The Boyds
Brenda Niall. (The Miegunya Press, Melbourne University Press, Australia). $A49.95 April 2002
ISBN 0-522-84871-0

Australian Gothic: a life of Albert Tucker
Janine Burke. (Random House, Australia). $A49.95 March 2002
ISBN 1-74051-092-5

Sidney Nolan
TG Rosenthal. (Thames & Hudson, London). £42.00 May 2002
ISBN 0-500-09304-0

The art world in Australia is supported by an energetic publishing culture, which despite punitive book taxes imposed by the Howard government, remains largely intact. Publications cannot hope for the same market sales as do English language publications in the Northern Hemisphere. Not only is editing and proofing of a high order (as good if not better than British art publications), but the design and layout maintains the same level. Publishers such as Craftsmans Press/Fine Art Press, Melbourne University Press, Random House Australia, and Thames & Hudson (Australia) are out in front. But it has to be said that where authorship is concerned, the standard occasionally lapses. Biography is a case in point. No recent publication has matched, in ten years, Bernard Smith’s masterly biography of the late social realist painter Noel Counihan, a formidable activist who did much to establish a degree of social awareness in Melbourne critical circles in recognising the true plight of Aboriginals.

One is bound to include by comparison, although in a different genre, Brenda Niall’s new book The Boyds, since it is naturally dominated by the architect Robin Boyd (who died aged 52 in 1971) and the late artist Arthur Boyd, both of whom achieved international status. First cousins, each one turned Australian culture on its side, opened it up, and while remaining totally Australian in their work, enabled the culture itself to take a giant leap forward. Niall’s description of Robin Boyd’s brilliant yet episodic life takes us from the superb basic studio he designed for Arthur as early as 1938 (paid for by their grandfather) through the treacherous Melbourne architectural Mafia, to the masterly Churchill House in the federal capital, completed after his death. He was denied the opportunity to join his senior partner in designing the Victorian Centre for the Arts (now clearly seen to be Melbourne’s loss). But Robin Boyd had a remarkable critical talent: his output in books and articles was prodigious, prolific, and well ahead of its immediate professional catchment. His great skill was to reach the great Australian public, and stimulate a far wider cultural interest in architecture. He also became correspondent of the Architectural Review, London, putting the new Australian architecture of the 1960s firmly in the international forum.

Similarly prolific was Arthur Boyd, whose precipitate decline in health and output in the late 1990s shocked an international art community which, at the start of the decade, had stood expectant of further and greater things. In the words of the British art critic Peter Fuller, ‘It seemed to me that Nolan, Boyd, and in a rather different and special way, Fred Williams had all begun to propose a new aesthetic, involving a new vision of the natural world, and man’s place within it which could lead to a discovery of a way out of and beyond the modernist impasse.’ Fuller himself, their exponent, died tragically in 1990 in a UK car accident. The painter Fred Williams was already dead. Sidney Nolan died in 1997, and Arthur Boyd in 1999. The loss over a decade of such talent essentially removed the leaders of a generation, and more. While architecture in Australia has only in the past decade begun to fulfil the promise indicated by Robin Boyd, who would have been 83 this year (see May 2002 book reviews), it remains to be seen how Australian painting will move forward to the same global acclaim in the first decade of the new century, and fulfil Fuller’s proposition for a new perspective on humanity and nature.

Albert Tucker was also to the fore in the generation of Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan and, although he did not achieve the same acclaim beyond Australia, Tucker played a full-blooded part as a talented painter and graphic artist. As early as 1954 he and Nolan jointly established a Rome exhibition. But when Nolan was selected (with two other artists, Russell Drysdale and William Dobell) to represent Australia at the Venice Biennial, with Nolan as Commissioner, the trajectory divided. Although Tucker had been in Europe since 1947, he found himself in effect redirected home, encouraged by drought photographs shown to him by Nolan. Tucker seemed to revert to the role of devil’s advocate amongst his fellow artists, while Nolan took off for British nationality, honours and establishment delights. The author and novelist Janine Burke describes such vicissitudes well, and the book seems shrewdly packaged as a gothic tale.

But this biography, while engendering sympathy for Tucker, is embattled by the refusal of picture rights and permissions for all Tucker’s work. Accordingly, the text is all style without substance, for the artist’s work and its evolution through his life must provide the true evidence of his success. What is at stake here is not Tucker’s personal life, but the deeper substantiation of the background to his oeuvre. Such a biography falls at the first fence (as Fuller might say) without even a token illustration of the work. This was intelligently present in Professor Smith’s Counihan biography, as indeed, intermittently but critically, was Counihan’s wife Pat. The sadness of Tucker’s failed relationship with Joy Hester, with whom he could not live, does not have to obscure the role of Tucker's wife Barbara, his partner of some thirty years, and now his widow. This is somewhat un-gothic, to say the least. Neither publisher or author being able to remedy this impasse, publication of the work in its present form seems to have been unwarranted other than in the realm of fictive biography: a growing genre, it must be said, but not of much primary usefulness to art historians — least of all without the other side of the story. Artists’ wives/partners remain an endangered species and, as their contribution within the Boyd family attests, a devoted and dedicated support structure that deserves proper recognition in posterity.

Thomas G Rosenthal’s magnum opus on Sidney Nolan is published by Thames & Hudson, London, and as an account of his full career, fills a long-standing gap. The author knew Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan for almost four decades, both essentially as artists living and working in his own country. Rosenthal played an instrumental role in Boyd’s career, as an employee at Thames & Hudson when the first monograph by Frans Philipp (1967) was published, as well as important collaborative books; likewise at Secker & Warburg; and then as the publisher (at André Deutsch) of the 1986 monograph by Ursula Hoff, for which he contributed a critical introductory text.

The present publisher has now in effect completed an outstanding trilogy on Australian artists, with first Brett Whiteley (by Barry Pearce), second Arthur Boyd (by Janet McKenzie) and now Sidney Nolan. The present volume displays the same superb quality of colour reproduction and design and layout. Rosenthal is the first to admit that there are several in Australia better qualified than he to undertake the task of describing Nolan’s life’s work. One of these is the curator earlier responsible for Nolan's 1987 Melbourne retrospective, Jane Clark, whose impeccable chronology over several scholarly pages is included here, and provides a proper database. But Rosenthal’s own text flows readily and informatively and seldom steps beyond the bounds of his different ability as art critic. It is apparent from the author’s own description that Nolan was second only to Boyd in attracting Rosenthal’s critical interest at an early stage. Rosenthal is careful therefore to avoid placing one above the other in the hall of fame. They make an interesting contrast. Boyd spent some thirty years of his working life in England, yet remained an Australian (and a republican) all his life, eschewing establishment recognition in London (he is not yet represented in the Tate Gallery) and living very privately in London and Suffolk. Nolan adopted a high profile, took British nationality, was knighted and celebrated, and seldom visited Australia. Boyd managed (as Brenda Niall and McKenzie have both fully documented) to re-establish his presence in Australia, at Bundanon in New South Wales — and gifted that home, plus 1,000 hectares surrounding, to Australia. It must be said that this tract included Sir Sidney’s half-share of another house there, willingly conjoined by the Nolans. (This is described as ‘significant’ by Rosenthal, but is less so when compared to the massive generosity of Arthur and Yvonne Boyd.) In his later career, Nolan was deeply supported by Arthur’s sister Mary, whom he married and who was also distinguished in the roll of such indispensable beings. I recall viewing with the Nolans, at the Melbourne Retrospective, the ‘facsimile’ set-up of the artist’s early Melbourne studio. Nolan was quick to point out that the unmade bed constructed (Emin-like) by the gallery could never have been his. He was a tidy and organised person, in all things.

There can be no final reckoning in the hall of fame, and Rosenthal is wise not to involve himself in any such activity. But a number of issues emerge from a study of the material published since 1999. One is Nolan’s remarkable lack of interest in the Aboriginal question which so concerned Counihan and Boyd. There is hardly a native to be seen in the Nolan series on Burke and Wills (the lost explorers, guided for so long by Aboriginal helpers) or anywhere in Nolan’s work. They might never have existed. For Boyd, the encounter with Aboriginals in 1951 was dramatic and searing, leading to a prolonged and brilliant series of paintings and graphics: the ‘Bride’ series. In contemporary Australian history, such awareness is notable, as is its absence. Rosenthal is explicit about this, but unable to express any conclusion, while considering Boyd’s ‘Bride’ paintings to be ‘probably his greatest sequence’.

Considering these various publications, one is made aware of a clear range of modality in authorship, all of which appears to be acceptable to long-suffering publishers. These range from the scholarly art-historical, to the fugitive fictive biography, to the racy, anecdotal factual repository, enlivened by critical observation. Here in 2002, we have them all on offer, and in the age of IT and Spellchecker, it can’t be all bad. But sometimes the blurbs do not make it clear which mode to expect, so perhaps what is required is some kind of cinema-like classification. But then part of the pleasure, too, is in the surprise. As long as one can return the book.

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