Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bronwyn Wat­son

Rain­bow Ser­pent, 1973. Ade­laide Festival Cen­tre Col­lec­tion. Given to the Ade­laide Festival Cen­tre Trust by the artist. On dis­play, Ade­laide Festival Cen­tre, South Aus­tralia.

JUST as Ned Kelly was ready to be hanged in Mel­bourne Gaol on Novem­ber 11, 1880, his last words were: ‘‘ Ah well, I sup­pose it has come to this.’’ Kelly’s life and man­ner of death have made the bushranger Aus­tralia’s most cel­e­brated folk hero. But that leg­end was given a good boost by a se­ries of paint­ings by one of this coun­try’s best known artists, Sid­ney Nolan.

Through­out his life, Nolan (1917-92) in­ter­preted many leg­ends, such as Kelly and Gal­lipoli, but one of his largest se­ries of works was in­spired by the Abo­rig­i­nal Dream­time mythology of the rain­bow ser­pent.

Rain­bow Ser­pent, which is part of the Ade­laide Festival Cen­tre col­lec­tion, con­sists of 324 in­di­vid­ual paint­ings, framed into 54 panels and ar­ranged into two mo­saic grids, that are dis­played on each side of the Festival The­atre’s grand stair­case.

When you visit the the­atre it is easy to over­look the work, de­spite its size, as peo­ple rush to get to their seats. You need to take time to ex­am­ine the work from afar, ideally when no one is around to block your view. From a dis­tance, what you’ll see is a wave of colour and light, rep­re­sent­ing the ser­pent slith­er­ing its way across the foyer on ei­ther side of the stair­case.

Rain­bow Ser­pent is site spe­cific and was one of the first com­mis­sioned works for the Festival The­atre in the early 1970s. How­ever, even though it was com­mis­sioned, Nolan en­thu­si­asm for the arts in Ade­laide. The work has been on dis­play in the the­atre foyer for more than 30 years.

About six years ago da­m­age from years of ex­po­sure and heat was dis­cov­ered, and the work was sub­se­quently re­stored by re­plac­ing the old pulp­board back­ing with new acid-free back­ing pa­per. Dur­ing the facelift, the restora­tion team dis­cov­ered that Nolan had used a tech­nique of colour­ing the back­ground with crayon, cov­er­ing it with ink and gouache, then scrap­ing off the ink to cre­ate an im­age, ac­cord­ing to the Ade­laide Festival Cen­tre’s vis­ual arts cu­ra­tor, Charissa Davies.

The restora­tion also un­cov­ered an­other sur­prise. On the back of the work was a note in­di­cat­ing that Nolan in­tended to name the work Lit­tle Snake. There is still de­bate over what the cor­rect ti­tle should be. of the cen­tral Aus­tralian desert in 1967 af­ter years of drought, says Davies. ‘‘ The mir­a­cle of long-dor­mant seeds prop­a­gat­ing and the mo­saic of growth in­spired this colour­ful se­ries, a con­trast to ear­lier works rep­re­sent­ing the arid in­te­rior,’’ she says.

‘‘ For me, Rain­bow Ser­pent brings back child­hood mem­o­ries of lay­ered crayon draw­ings in which you would scrap back the top lay­ers to re­veal the colours un­der­neath. It’s a very sim­ple tech­nique but highly ef­fec­tive in cre­at­ing such a pow­er­ful work.

‘‘ Nolan ob­vi­ously be­lieved very strongly in the im­por­tance of Ade­laide hav­ing the Festival Cen­tre and it is won­der­ful to have such a large-scale work of his wel­com­ing vis­i­tors. It may not be to the scale of Hobart’s in­cred­i­ble Mu­seum of Old and New Art in­stal­la­tion Snake, a sim­i­lar but larger work, but it still

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