From ev­ery stage of his ca­reer, Nolan pro­duced work that pulsed with en­ergy, writes Se­bas­tian Smee Sid­ney Nolan Art Gallery of NSW, un­til Fe­bru­ary 3, 2008; Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Fe­bru­ary 22 to May 18; and Queens­land Art Gallery, June 6 to Au­gust 3

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

IN 1944, de­scrib­ing his awe be­fore an im­mense bush­fire, Sid­ney Nolan wrote to his lover Sun­day Reed that man- made things could seem ‘‘ a lit­tle silly in the face of some­thing that does not bun­gle its own mys­tery’’. Dur­ing the next 50 years, Nolan would re­peat­edly bun­gle and di­lute the mys­tery of his own art through rep­e­ti­tion, blowsy ex­e­cu­tion and gen­eral hap­haz­ard­ness.

None­the­less, care­fully fil­tered, what re­mains is a body of work as hal­lu­ci­na­tory and vo­ra­cious as a bush­fire, and as good as any­thing pro­duced by an Aus­tralian in the 20th cen­tury.

One of the amaz­ing things about the Nolan ret­ro­spec­tive at the Art Gallery of NSW — the first since his death in 1992 — is how fear­less the work looks. If Nolan had never ex­isted and some young buck were to come along in 2007 and pro­duce paint­ings like this, I’ve no doubt he would be in­stantly feted. And I am re­fer­ring not just to Nolan’s fan­tas­ti­cally fresh early work of the 1940s and ’ 50s. I am talk­ing about work from ev­ery stage of his ca­reer.

Look at the psy­che­delic colour and steam­ing ur­gency of a paint­ing such as African land­scape from 1963, or at the raw force and painterly vir­tu­os­ity of Young mon­key from the same year. Look at the rough- as- guts por­traits of min­ers from 1972 or at the boldly lyri­cal spray paint­ing White swans fly­ing over the Karako­rams , from 1986. Any of th­ese would make even the most dar­ing painter to­day feel en­vi­ous and in­se­cure.

But of course, art lovers in Aus­tralia are so ac­cus­tomed to Nolan’s work — par­tic­u­larly his sig­na­ture Ned Kelly mo­tif — that we of­ten talk as if we were in­oc­u­lated against it. The chal­lenge fac­ing the Art Gallery of NSW was not just to show Nolan at his best but to present him afresh.

By and large, it has suc­ceeded. For­get for a mo­ment Nolan’s rep­u­ta­tion as the great Aus­tralian myth- monger; this show is re­quired view­ing for any­one sus­cep­ti­ble to the power of great paint­ing. None­the­less, in some as­pects the show is a missed op­por­tu­nity.

Nolan is of­ten dis­missed as an anec­do­tal painter. The ac­cu­sa­tion is that he re­lied too heav­ily on lit­er­ary sub­ject mat­ter and was reck­lessly in­dif­fer­ent to form.

Aware of this ac­cu­sa­tion, Nolan said many things to de­fend him­self, none stranger than his as­ser­tion in a 1980 in­ter­view that he was ‘‘ mas­querad­ing as a nar­ra­tive painter on the sim­ple ba­sis that the peas­ants will un­der­stand’’. As a painter, he went on, it was re­ally form he was in­ter­ested in.

Don’t be­lieve a word of it. Nolan was deeply in­ter­ested in myth, in po­etry, in nar­ra­tive. There can be no ques­tion about it. Part of why he was so im­por­tant, not just lo­cally but in­ter­na­tion­ally, is that he con­tin­ued to grap­ple with nar­ra­tive at a time when the an­cient sto­ry­telling func­tions of art were be­ing uni­ver­sally ma­ligned in favour of pure form.

The ex­trem­ity, the ab­sur­dity of the for­mal­ist po­si­tion, which would la­bel a nar­ra­tive artist such as Rem­brandt great al­most in spite of him­self, has since be­come ev­i­dent. But in Nolan’s life­time, which roughly co­in­cided with the hey­day of for­mal­ism, to be de­scribed as an il­lus­tra­tor was to be rel­e­gated to the third di­vi­sion.

Cu­ra­tor Barry Pearce has tried to free Nolan from the stigma of sto­ry­telling by choos­ing only those paint­ings that stand alone as great images. He de­lib­er­ately dis­re­garded their se­rial con­text and took no no­tice of the sto­ries that in­spired them, from Aus­tralian his­tory, from the New Tes­ta­ment and from Greek myth. The approach was right: if Nolan’s oeu­vre re­quires any­thing, it’s a fine- mesh fil­ter. But the rea­son was wrong.

As you wan­der through the show, two prob­lems emerge. First, the strat­egy de­pended on the most clear- eyed se­lec­tion of works. But key paint­ings from Nolan’s early years have been omit­ted, among them some of the bet­ter Wim­mera paint­ings ( in­clud­ing Flour lumper, Dim­boola ) and sev­eral won­der­ful St Kilda paint­ings ( Full back, St Kilda , Diver and the se­ries of Bathers ). The last room, mean­while, con­tains sev­eral works that un­der­mine the oth­er­wise con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment that late Nolan is not nec­es­sar­ily weak Nolan. Bun­gle bun­gle , 1984 ( the name says it all), and Re­flec­tions , 1985, are the worst of them.

Sec­ond, the bias against nar­ra­tive has been used to ra­tio­nalise a ter­ri­ble mis­take. Hands up if you have seen Nolan’s orig­i­nal Ned Kelly se­ries in its per­ma­nent home up­stairs at the Na­tional Gallery in Can­berra?

I could be wrong, but I’m bet­ting most hands

Re­gret­tably, th­ese are not the best 10 ( where are Con­sta­ble Fitz­patrick and Kate Kelly , Morn­ing camp , Town­ship , Steve Hart dressed as a girl , Stringy­bark Creek , The alarm , The chase , The defence of Aaron Sher­ritt , Bush pic­nic and The trial ?). They are crowded to­gether in­fe­lic­i­tously on a sin­gle wall, and dis­played with­out the quo­ta­tions Nolan had se­lected to hang be­side each pic­ture. Th­ese quo­ta­tions, from con­tem­po­rary sources, have, to my mind, al­ways added to the emo­tional charge of the pic­tures. are down. What is eu­phemisti­cally called cir­cu­la­tion at the Na­tional Gallery has been so bad for so long that most peo­ple don’t even know there is an up­stairs, let alone that it houses the finest dis­play of post- war Aus­tralian art in the world and that at the heart of this dis­play is Nolan’s Kelly se­ries.

The first Nolan ret­ro­spec­tive since the artist’s death should have been an oc­ca­sion to take the Ned Kelly paint­ings of 1946- 47 — his crown­ing achieve­ment and the most fa­mous se­ries of paint­ings in Aus­tralian his­tory — to the three state cap­i­tals host­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion. In­stead, only 10 of the 27 orig­i­nal paint­ings have been in­cluded.

In the end, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what Nolan said later in his life as he felt the weight of the Kelly se­ries grow heav­ier around his neck and grew tired of be­ing la­belled an anec­do­tal artist. The fact re­mains, th­ese paint­ings are very much in­volved in con­vey­ing a story. It’s a com­plex story and it is as much about Nolan’s life as it is about Kelly. But good nar­ra­tives usu­ally are com­plex.

Of course, the paint­ings are also pow­er­fully sur­real, sin­gu­lar images that em­ploy a daz­zling, de­cep­tively sim­ple- look­ing for­mal syn­tax. The two as­pects, lit­er­ary and for­mal, co­ex­ist hap­pily.

But enough with the gripes. Pearce’s ruth­less­ness in the se­lec­tion process has else­where paid off in spades. The show hangs to­gether very well and is re­mark­ably lean, no easy task given Nolan’s prodi­gious and highly un­even out­put.

Among the ear­lier works, Boy and the moon is my favourite. Un­til the end of 1939, when this paint­ing was be­gun, Nolan had been grap­pling with ab­strac­tion. Now, his imag­i­na­tion trig­gered by the way his friend’s head was swal­lowed by a large yel­low disc as they sat one evening on a St Kilda park bench, he at­tempted to give an im­age of the ut­most sim­plic­ity a new kind of emo­tional kick.

Boy and the moon, with its jaunty hint of ir­reg­u­lar­ity, is the re­sult and it is sheer ge­nius: vis­ual dis­til­la­tion at its best. The shape be­came a kind of archetype for Nolan, who used it as a con­duit to mem­o­ries of youth, as­so­ci­a­tions with

his hero, the French poet Arthur Rim­baud, and all man­ner of other ideas. It was also the head of Ned Kelly in em­bry­onic form.

From now on, as Nolan turns to fig­u­ra­tive im­agery set against del­i­cate, al­most in­sub­stan­tial land­scapes, we re­peat­edly see fast, at times fudged- look­ing brush­work snapped into place by iso­lated in­stances of crisp de­tail or colour­ful pat­terns.

Look, for in­stance, at the yel­low stripes and the spot­ted dresses in the won­der­ful Wail ( rail­way sta­tion, Wim­mera) ; the bunting in Robe Street, St Kilda , or the blue eye and blood- soaked blos­soms of fur in Hare in trap .

Fur­ther on, the lin­ear clar­ity of the sculp­tural shape ( a com­bine har­vester?) on the build­ing’s roof in Agri­cul­tural Ho­tel adds a hal­lu­ci­na­tory edge to the im­age, as do the wa­ter wheel and the rake in Lit­tle Dog Mine , a spell­bind­ing paint­ing.

I was newly im­pressed by the small sam­ple of Nolan’s re­li­gious paint­ings, in par­tic­u­lar The temp­ta­tion of St An­thony , which com­bines the dreamy, out- of- kil­ter id­iom of Marc Cha­gall and Arthur Boyd with ex­treme del­i­cacy of colour.

Pearce has cho­sen well, too, from the Mrs Fraser and Burke and Wills se­ries, and sen­si­tively from the con­tentious se­ries, painted with polyvinyl ac­etate, riff­ing on the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan.

As the show builds to a cli­max, Nolan seems ever more in love with fluid, fugi­tive ef­fects. He is in­spired by mu­sic and po­etry, es­pe­cially the po­etry of Rim­baud. A pro­lific trav­eller, he seems, in the words of A. R. Chisholm writ­ing on Rim­baud, ‘‘ haunted by the im­men­sity of life and the mul­ti­tudi­nous move­ments of life’’.

Is he try­ing to re­place the lin­ear, plas­tic val­ues of art with mu­si­cal ones, as Rim­baud did in po­etry? Pearce’s cat­a­logue es­say, an ap­proach­able and very per­cep­tive in­tro­duc­tion to Nolan, makes this claim. The ar­gu­ment is en­tirely con­vinc­ing ( and far more tightly ar­gued than di­rec­tor Ed­mund Capon’s dis­may­ingly breezy and slip­shod in­tro­duc­tion). But the ef­fect of the at­tempt on Nolan’s images was not al­ways charmed, as good mu­sic needs to be.

Nolan’s in­creas­ingly ethe­real im­agery made use of an as­ton­ish­ing reper­toire of painterly ef­fects. The glow­ing, puls­ing, al­most ki­netic colours in paint­ings such as Rim­baud at Harar and Head of Rim­baud pro­duce some of the most ex­cit­ing images in the show.

Fi­nally, the room de­voted to Nolan’s two River­bend paint­ings, each made up of nine ver­ti­cal pan­els, is a tri­umph. Drink in the striped, rain­bow- coloured re­flec­tions in the bil­l­abong at the right of River­bend II , one of the dreami­est, most haunt­ing and beau­ti­ful pas­sages of paint­ing ever pro­duced by an Aus­tralian.

In­creas­ingly ethe­real im­agery: Clock­wise from top left, Flight into Egypt ( 1951); Hare in trap ( 1946); and Head of Rim­baud ( 1963)

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