AS FRESH AS THE DAY THEY WERE MADE
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
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)