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