Published  06/11/2007

Sidney Nolan: A New Retrospective

Sidney Nolan: A New Retrospective

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
2 November 2007-3 February 2008

This is the first major retrospective of Sidney Nolan's paintings since his death in 1992. It presents an opportunity to unravel something of the artist's enigma and evaluate his contribution to Australian culture.

Nolan was an extraordinarily prolific artist, producing over 10,000 significant works, often as many as sixty or more drawings in a day, which has created problems for curators and historians. The last retrospective was organised by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1987 (reviewed by Studio International) to mark the artist's 70th birthday. It was accompanied by Jane Clark's catalogue, Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends. Incorporating much of her research and chronology, Tom Rosenthal published Sidney Nolan with Thames and Hudson in 2002. Although Rosenthal is apologetic for being English, he contributes an accessible and lively treatment to the literature on Nolan. In 2003 Geoffrey Smith curated Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought, for the National Gallery of Victoria, and the excellent catalogue published then drew upon unpublished diary material and letters, especially the writings of Cynthia Nolan. These really bring the outback works of the 1950s to life.

As with a study of Arthur Boyd, the literature on Nolan has evolved since the 1940s. Many committed and perceptive commentators and scholars and, more recently, museum curators have contributed to the body of literature on Nolan and Boyd, and other key artists of the war years, a period which changed Australian art dramatically. The new retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is no exception.

Nolan was an essentially enigmatic artist. His work did not progress logically from realism to abstraction. Nor did he have thematically defined 'periods' throughout his oeuvre. He worked on the same themes all his life - one might associate his Ned Kelly paintings with his 1940s work, but he continually returned to themes and to styles throughout his career. The new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales nonetheless chooses a strict chronology.

The new exhibition features many of Nolan's finest masterpieces; some 120 paintings gathered from public and private collections in Australia, London, the United States and France. Many have only rarely been seen in public, thus contributing to a fresh experience especially for a younger generation. The paintings are displayed in strict chronology - underlining the evolution of Nolan's vision from its genesis in Melbourne during the late 1930s to Europe half a century later. Each critical phase is represented, from the St Kilda and Wimmera themes, through the first Ned Kelly series, Central and Northern Australian landscapes and explorer subjects, African, Antarctic and European paintings, to Chinese and Australian-inspired abstractions.

The exhibition gives emphasis to the late, spray-painted, Chinese landscapes and abstractions, which in some ways are an echo of how Nolan began his work as a young emotionally charged young man without a formal training, but with a passion for ideas and art.

Some of Nolan's most famous paintings are included, such as 'Boy and the Moon' (1939-40), the iconic Kelly masterpiece 'First Class Marksman' (1946), 'Pretty Polly Mine' (1948), 'Burke and Wills leaving Melbourne' (1950), 'The Temptation of St Anthony' (1952) and 'Rimbaud at Harar' (1963).

The climax of the exhibition is the series of the multi-panel paintings 'Riverbend I' (1964-65) and 'Riverbend II' (1965-66), which evoke the place where the artist's grandfather struggled on the land, and as a policeman pursued the Kelly gang. Nolan captures the contradiction that many Australians feel towards their country, awe in the face of its violent past, and a tremendous love for the unique and beautiful environment. In 1961, Kenneth Clark, rightly observed, 'Although this discovery of truth about Australia is an important element in his work, I think it can be overstated. For Nolan is not at all a factual artist. He is, on the contrary, a man of active and disquieting imagination, and one of the fascinating things about his work is its unpredictability'.1 Nolan painted characters who epitomised Australia in an original and varied manner. Yet he did not allow himself to be weighed down by his nationality.

He responded to the spirit of the place wherever he went. He did not carry his Australian baggage around with him. That he could paint [Ned] Kelly, [the explorer] Burke, Anzacs, in any studio in which he found himself, is neither here nor there. If he painted African elephants they did not look like the behemoths from the outback; they were solidly African. His best paintings of China owed more to Chinese artists than to his Australian heritage.2

Sidney Nolan is often cited as Australia's greatest artist but as Picasso and Matisse jostle posthumously for the title of twentieth century champion artist, Nolan shares his position with his lifelong friend, and since 1978, brother-in-law, Arthur Boyd. Both artists were born in Melbourne, both were remarkable innovators, worked thematically and lived some 30 years of their lives in England. Both, too, drew great interest and admiration from the leading critics in Britain from when they first arrived in 1960; they exhibited regularly in London and Australia throughout their lives. Where Boyd kept his Australian nationality, Nolan became a British citizen, a Royal Academician and accepted a knighthood.

In all of Nolan's imagery the theme of failure is perhaps inadvertently, at first, pursued. His identification with tragic figures as a way of characterising Australia's pioneering spirit and the hardship endured, produced great and visionary works. A mythology evolved in Nolan's treatment of the convict Ned Kelly, the ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills and the soldiers who fought and died at Gallipoli. Australians are reluctant to give praise, except for certain sportsmen who are almost deified. Failure is easier to identify with:

So it is not surprising that, for Australian and non- Australian alike, Nolan has given us a painted set of images that will forever stand in our collective visual memory of unforgettable and unforgotten men, heroically failing in their stupendous tasks, enriching us all and creating the most enduring mythology of Australian society.3

Sidney Nolan was born on 22 April 1917 in Melbourne to a fifth generation Irish family. His father was a tram driver. His working-class upbringing meant that he left school aged 14, although he later spent two years at Prahan Technical College. Nolan worked in the art department of a hat factory where he in fact learnt many skills, including the use of spray paint, which he used late in his career, and other non-traditional materials such as Ripolin enamel paint. The new retrospective gives emphasis to the spray-painted images of China. He joined drawing classes at the National Gallery School, but at that stage preferred the prospect of being a poet. As early as 1936, having read vociferously, he made illustrations for James Joyce's Ulysses. By 1940 he wanted to become an abstract artist. Nolan developed an original non-academic attitude to art. He was highly experimental, using collage, textiles, metal plates and assemblage for book illustration as well as painting. It was in 1940 that he painted 'Boy and the Moon', an enigmatic, pure form which reappeared in various forms through out his career. In his personal life Nolan had met and married Elizabeth Paterson in 1938. In 1940 their daughter was born; only a year later the couple separated and Nolan moved to Heide, the home of John and Sunday Reed. The Reeds were a catalytic force in the development of modern art in Australia and in Nolan's life and career.

As well as being a highly original young artist, Nolan was a child of the inner city during the Depression. Max Harris observed that Nolan was, 'Haunted by images of poverty, desperation and insecurity that gripped our parents during those desperate years'.4 In the inner city, Nolan chose images such as those from Luna Park, which became archetypal images of city life. They are modernist images in the spirit of the Russian Constructivists Gabo and Tatlin. Nolan claimed that Luna Park was his kitsch heaven as a child where reorientation and distortion were celebrated. The naive style of painting shows the influence of Douanier Rousseau and the patterning and colour of Matisse.

Ironically it was Nolan's time in the army, which took him to rural Australia, that had a liberating effect on his work. Furthermore, the work he produced in the Wimmera while in the army, and then the exuberant works that followed, represent a turning point in the depiction of the Australian landscape. Nolan had painted landscapes before 1942, but the Wimmera paintings are his first and consistent attempt to come to terms with the Australian landscape. On the occasion of the exhibition to mark Nolan's gift of the Wimmera series to the National Gallery of Victoria, prompted Director, Patrick McCaughey to observe:

Nolan has stripped its romantic associations - a most surprising result for such a naturally romantic temperament - and presented instead a distinctly 'objective' view of landscape. How did the painter confront the bare, monotonous, unpicturesque qualities of the Australian landscape? How could the painter find pictorial form for so unpromising a subject? The Wimmera paintings show how brilliantly Nolan succeeded in answering the challenge. He created successful works out of the ordinariness of the landscape, which, forty years later, still speak with the raw directness of a landscape seen and experienced sharply for the first time. The Wimmera paintings both break the mould handed down by the Heidelberg School and their followers and prepare the way for Fred Williams's impersonal and magisterial account of the Australian landscape.5

Sidney Nolan's first encounter with the Wimmera was from the back of an army lorry in May 1942. He was being transported with fellow soldiers to Dimboola, soon after joining up. He was just twenty-five and was to spend two years there, returning to Melbourne in February 1944. Richard Haese concurs with McCaughey on the importance of the Wimmera experience on Nolan's art and on Australian art.

Nolan had been committed to art for four years, an art that was more diverse, puzzling and capricious - and sophisticated in its intellectual concerns - than any of his contemporaries. The two years of the Wimmera period were to prove crucial to Nolan and his art. In these years we see for the first time Nolan reaching his full powers as an artist and confronting the full challenge of the realities of landscape and the innovations of modernism. The result was a period of development more dense and concentrated than at any other time in his career; the consequences were far reaching for Nolan and for the history of Australian painting.6

Nolan brought to his experience of the Wimmera landscape the lessons of late nineteenth-century European art and early twentieth-century art. His own interpretation of the innovations of French art in particular, he found liberating. The grand vision of the Colonial artist, Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin and Conder, was replaced with an art that belonged to a profoundly changed world. Nolan tilted the picture plane so that the view of the land became vertical. He later described his main sources for the tilted surfaces as 'Rousseau and sunlight'. Primitivism is central to his work that takes a bird's eye view, making linear perspective disappear. His army duties included a lot of time spent sitting around observing the stillness of the relatively deserted surrounds - just birds, wheat silos and bleached yellow fields. This period of observation for weeks and months on end, established the mode and spirit of much work that he produced throughout the rest of his highly productive career. One cannot imagine Nolan being able to produce his stark and desolate images of the desert and Central Australia in the 1950s without this enforced period of observation in the Wimmera during the war.

Nolan's 'Wimmera' paintings were made in the studio from memory, yet they still depict specific places, characters and events. Nolan did sketch extensively in 1942, but these were very much the exception to the rule. Mostly, Nolan possessed a remarkable visual memory, which would have been particularly useful during the war when art materials were in short supply. Vital to Nolan's wartime art was his use of non-traditional materials. Like Picasso, he used Ripolin - a high quality enamel house paint, and mostly board rather than canvas. Arthur Boyd, by contrast, used the shortage of manufactured artist oil paints as his cue to grind pigments in his father's ceramic glaze-making machine, and make paints using traditional Old Master recipes.

The 'Luna Park' paintings of Nolan were a useful preparation for the Wimmera landscape works. Painting landscape had been considered to be a form of artistic treason by Nolan and the Reeds, given their commitment to modernism and abstraction. The war years polarised issues that were of vital concern to the artistic development of artists such as Nolan. On one hand, they wanted to emulate the European avant-garde, but the war and the resultant isolation inevitably sharpened a sense of national pride. Haese describes it not as nationalism was before the war, or has become since, but rather as a nationalist desire 'to tell one's own story.7 Army duties became less demanding at Dimboola, and so Nolan found time for extensive reading; he also set up a studio for painting. In the latter part of 1942 he worked on the 'Bather' series, as well as portraits, and his first 'Dimboola' works. In their intense colour, sunlight and simple forms Nolan was seeking to reinvent painting. Among his finest works are those painted early in 1943, capturing the sense of unlimited space. His handling of space is exhilarating, the brushstrokes freer and more active than before. Although they represent space, there is no absence of humanity. Nolan's playful inclusion of buildings, silosan and figures provides a curious justaposition with a sense of inhabiting a never-ending expanse. The 'Bather' paintings are complex in mood, for while they express youthful freedom and an idyllic past, there is also a disturbing sense of anxiety and fear. Chaos and freedom co-exist in Nolan's work. He suffered an accident where he lost part of two fingers. He was also ill for a period of time. He was posted to Melbourne in February 1944. After the relative freedom of Dimboola and Ballarat, Melbourne was stressful and difficult. Early in July 1944 Nolan deserted the army, and while massively relieved to be away from the tedium and conformity, he lived in fear of being arrested and imprisoned.

Nolan's attitude to war in general was clearly ambiguous at that time, but there is nothing ambiguous about the painting, ['Lublin'] in which the tranquil, innocent, landscape background, emphasizes the apocalyptic vision of a blockhouse whose tallest storey on the left conjures up the chimneys of the gas chambers.8

The most important of Nolan's paintings are those based on the story of Australia's bushranger, Ned Kelly. His first works on the theme were made in 1946-47. The subject continued to dominate his career for his entire life. No subject in Australian art has been given so much attention, and within Nolan's career more has been written about the Kelly works than any other section of his oeuvre. Ned Kelly was not a likeable figure, no Robin Hood. He was a horse thief and murderer who was eventually hung for his crimes. Kelly has inspired artists, writers, playwrights and film makers, the most recent being Peter Carey's fictionalised account of his life. Carey has claimed that it was in fact Nolan's treatment of the Kelly myth that inspired his novel. Manning Clark, the historian responsible for one of the finest and first complete history of Australia, described him as, 'A wild ass of a man, snarling, roaring and frothing like a ferocious beast when the tamer entered the cage. Mad Ireland has fashioned a man who consumed his vast gifts in an insensate war on property and on all the props of bourgeois civilization - the police, the bankers, the squatters, the teachers, the preachers, the railway and the electric telegraph'.9

Ned Kelly was the son of an Irish convict, transported to Australia; he grew up in North Eastern Victoria. Ned stole horses with his brother Dan, and when a Constable Fitzpatrick tried to arrest him, Ned allegedly shot at him. The Kelly family claimed that Ned was not at home; a fight broke out and several of the Kelly family were arrested, and sent to prison. Ned and Dan escaped and formed a gang with two others. They killed three of the four policemen who pursued them. The drama continued with Ned's gang robbing two banks and leaving a letter justifying their actions. A massive police hunt followed. Sidney Nolan's grandfather was one of the policemen in pursuit of Kelly. The outlaws wore metal armour made from ploughs. A siege took place in which Ned was wounded, a young woman shot in error. Ned was eventually arrested, and sentenced to death. His last words were, 'Such is life'. According to Clarke and other commentators, Ned Kelly became a national hero because his life stood for courage against injustice; it helped to mould a national identity.

Nolan was attracted to Kelly as a rebellious, anti-establishment figure. Nolan's Irish background and the fact that his own grandfather played a part in the drama, albeit on the wrong side, and the fact that Nolan loved a good story - all contributed to his fascination for the subject. Nolan researched the subject from literature, legal reports and his own research and interviews around Glenrowan. The treatment of convicts in Australia was cruel and often out of all proportion to the petty crime committed in Britain, as Robert Hughes uncovered in his book The Fatal Shore. Nolan connected visual language, excitement in story-telling with a profound sense of a largely undefined Australian spirit. His identification with Kelly is so natural and heart-felt that it is impossible to imagine the development of an Australian identity without it. John Reed wrote the very pertinent 'Statement' for the exhibition of Kelly paintings in 1948:

Australia has not been an easy country to paint. A number of artists have sensed something of what it holds and one or two - the early Roberts and Streeton - have succeeded in giving us glimpses of it which were movingly true; but we have waited many years for a mature statement to cover both the landscape and man in relation to it. In my opinion, this has now been achieved, by Sidney Nolan in the group of 27 paintings exhibited, and it is a remarkable achievement indeed, necessitating as it has the most sensitive and profound harmony between symbol, legend and visual impact. That this has been accomplished in language of the utmost simplicity is in itself an indication of the strength of the artist's vision and discipline, while at the same time it should allow those who are responsive to the elemental things which move us all to find ready response in themselves to what the paintings have to give.10

In 1948 Nolan left the Reeds and traveled to Queensland where he spent six months exploring the country, travelling by air for the first time. The Wimmera had sparked an insatiable desire to explore the real Australia, its physical and spiritual heartland. Then he went to Sydney where he was to settle and remarry, Nolan was ready for a prolific phase of painting. He met and married Cynthia, the sister of John Reed. Theirs was a remarkably productive marriage. Cynthia had travelled and worked in Australia and abroad and had published two novels. She shared Nolan's fascination with traveling and supported him in his creative pursuits. Nolan's first solo exhibition of Queensland paintings was shown, in Sydney, in March 1949, to a mostly rapturous response. Over 4,000 people visited the show. Good sales ensured they could afford a serious trip to Central Australia. Sir Kenneth Clarke 'discovered' Nolan's work at this stage, visited his studio and offered to help him with contacts in London. It was an exciting time, when he was in the position to plan in practical terms as well as the work he would create over the next four years. They flew to Adelaide and traveled by train to Alice Springs. Based there, Sid joined the air postman on his run, saturating himself with the remarkable land, the intense colours and inevitably the complex and unsatisfactory plight of the Australian Aborigines. In his diary he wrote:

The Aborigines are never far from one's thoughts here. Dignified, withdrawn finally, they compare more than favourably with our own bitten faces. If they sometimes act like children it is because that is their greatest defence. One grey haired old chap passed us looking like Nehru, quiet wisdom in his shoulders and face. With clean linen & a rose in his hand he could have presided over our parliament with not even an ounce of effort.

However, this is the potentiality. The actuality is dirt, malnutrition; almost 100% bad eyes &, on the surface anyway, lost to the dreaming. I doubt whether there has been a race with as gentle philosophy.
(28 June 1949)11

Cynthia wrote extensively and Sidney wrote, drew, took photographs and observed. Theirs was an ambitious and remarkable journey. The paintings that resulted were ground-breaking in Australian art, possessing a filmic quality. Nolan had viewed films of inland Australia before the 1949 trip. Smith wrote:

His interest in films dated from the early 1940s, when he became convinced that new forms of myth would be best expressed through film. From the Wimmera, he wrote glowingly of Walt Disney, describing things as though they were sequences from films, not, 'bounded by straight lines, colour that moves while you watch it and music at your elbow into the bargain'.12

To travel by air at 10,000 feet above the ground was useful and exciting for Nolan who compared the view to the work of Paul Klee and Aboriginal art. Nolan's exhibition the following year of the work done during and inspired by the trip took place in Sydney in March 1950. Charles P Mountford, the respected anthropologist, could hardly contain his excitement. In his speech, he said that the exhibition was one of the most important events in Australian art.

These pictures engender an enormous excitement, for they have a new and disturbing kind of beauty. Though they wear the very aspect of truth, and it would seem that no more final summary could be made, yet theirs is the truth of a poet and not that of the statistician or geographer.

Nolan has been able to bring the vision of the poet and a respect for the objective facts of Nature into a single focus.13

Nolan's reputation was firmly established. Cynthia's book, Outback, was finally published in 1962. The exhibition at the AGNSW provides the chance for these ground-breaking works to be viewed against work from his entire oeuvre. The remarkable works stand the test of time, and it is possible now that over 50 years has elapsed to appreciate what astounding vision Nolan possessed. Among his most important championed were the British critics who brought his work to London.

In the 1960s Australian art arrived in Britain at a point where its appeal lay to a great extent in the fact that the artists represented painted landscape and they did so in a way that such a persistently Ancien Régime would find thrilling. The Whitechapel Gallery catalogue had a 'Foreword' by Sir Kenneth Clark; by contrast to 'Civilisation', the Australian painters presented an uncivilised world which critics described as, 'Direct', 'Tough', 'Bold' and 'Fresh'. The New World images could thus purge the ills of the Old. One would have expected that with individuals such as Bryan Robertson (the Director of the Whitechapel) and Sir Kenneth Clark championing Australian contemporary art that the narrative would have been sustained. Alas, the 1970s were a period of individual exhibitions but little comprehensive representation. It was not until the 1988 Australian Bicentennial shows: 'The Angry Penguins' at the Hayward Gallery and 'Stories of Australian Art' (Australian art in British Collections) by Jonathan Watkins that Australian art was presented as such. In Nicholas Usherwood's introduction to the Agnew's 2005 exhibition 'You Beaut Country', he points out that the 1961 Whitechapel show was attempting to pigeonhole Australian art and the fact that it proved impossible meant that it fell from the public gaze.

Sidney Nolan settled in London (more or less permanently) in 1953. Surely the time has come to bring a major exhibition such as this wonderful exhibition from the Art Gallery of New South Wales to London, and then to follow it with other exhibitions that define not just what it is to be Australian, but to define a universal human condition in the twenty-first century.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Tom Rosenthal, Sidney Nolan, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002, p.17.
2. Ibid, p.13.
3. Ibid, p.16.
4. Ibid, p.26.
5. Patrick McCaughey, “Foreword”, Sidney Nolan: The City and the Plain, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1983, p.3.
6. Richard Haese, “Under the Sign of the Plain and the Sky”, ibid, p.8.
7. Ibid, p.13.
8. Rosenthal, op.cit., pp.36-7.
9. Ibid, p.59.
10. Ibid, p.63.
11. Geoffrey Smith, Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought, NGV, Melbourne, 2003, p.17.
12. Ibid, p.21
13. Ibid, p.24.

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