Sometimes you hold contradictory thoughts in your head to your own detriment — I’d known that Sidney Nolan was one of the most significant Australian painters, but I hadn’t realised he was so good.
Let’s phrase that a bit differently — whilst I had seen Nolan paintings (I’m presuming) in Melbourne and at the RAA Australia exhibition, I hadn’t been hugely struck by his work. I seem to recall there’s a painting in the Tate walkthrough of British art, and I just remember the colour brown.
The Pallant House Gallery, in collaboration with the Sidney Nolan Trust, have put together an exhibition to mark his centenary, drawing on the property of the trust and paintings in the Tate collection (I suspect rarely shown), paintings from Leicester Art Gallery, Walker Gallery and so on. It is an impressive collection.
Like (most?) Australian painters, he is drawn to landscapes, and there are several incredible moonscapes of the centre of Australia — mountains and craters and deserts, often as glimpsed from an aeroplane. These were too big to do on site, and I wonder if there are notebooks of sketches not shown here? They are suitable huge, but you notice that he seems more likely to paint the vertical or in a square than in landscape format, presumably to fit in all the layers of horizon and height and depth, rather than a wide, empty sweep. Inland Australia, I guess, is one of those rare exceptions.
Occasionally, he also painted on glass, almost like a contour map, using Ripolin, a kind of enamel paint (making him a precursor to George Shaw). Alongside the Australian desert is the Antarctic one — as dead as Australia interiors seem but freezing rather than hot. There are also paintings such as Carcase in Swamp, a title that is seemingly half right, a product of a commission of a newspaper or magazine to record seemingly the worst drought in Northern Queensland, where corpses were strewn across landscapes or somehow caught up trees. No magazine would touch them, but it was clearly stored in his image bank (to reappear in theatre designs decades later).
Sidney Nolan had been sought out by Kenneth Clark of Civilisation when the latter visited Australia, and this led to Nolan moving to Britain in 1951, away from his increasingly complicated love life in Heide outside Melbourne, although I suspect it became no less complex as a result. It needs therefore to be borne in mind that many of Nolan’s landscapes were painted in retrospect from a very different location. Indeed, he had a studio without windows to avoid distraction.
We get to see glimpses of three of his series of paintings — Ned Kelly, Burke and Willis and Mrs Fraser and Bracewell. I guess the Ned Kelly series is the most well-known — the Irish-descended bushranger convicted for stealing horses who went on the run after the attempted murder of a policeman. He fled to the Bush as an outlaw, being involved in the death of further policemen and a number of hold-ups. The final showdown was at Glenrowan, where the gang wore the homemade metal suits and were shot dead — Kelly survived, to be put on trial and executed in 1880 aged 25. Apparently Nolan’s grandfather was one of the police officers at Glenrowan — and Nolan painted this shootout at least once.
Typically Kelly is reduced to the square, spade-like mask, with a slot for the eyes, sometimes just showing the eyes. The mask stands on a spindly neck on an abstracted body, sometimes on a horse, often wielding a weapon. In other paintings, the mask becomes painted in blocks of colour, a moment of Mondrian or Miro. His Australian symbol could also be twisted to other uses — Kelly Spring 1956 gives him a blue background, a tree with blossom and is presumably a nod to events in Hungary.
And then there’s large, vertical, landscape painting, Ned Kelly and Policeman, with the landscape rather over shadowing the three policemen at the bottom of the image and Kelly on a horse. The label seems to be suggesting that Kelly is facing them down, but to me it looks like he is riding away. Of course, the mask looks the same from either side. There is also the painting of the death mask of Kelly, another mask but this time of his “real” face, based on the post-execution cast. (Do I recall Francis Bacon had a death mask of William Blake? Did I make that up? There are apparently others links too.) Death of a Poet has the bright blue background and strange plants twirling around much of the picture space, especially on the left. Apparently this is also a nod to Arthur Rimbaud, French poet and gun runner, although I’m not entirely clear how.
The second myth he draws on is of Burke and Wills, leaders of a 1860–61 expedition to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, which failed on its return to Cooper’s Creek where Burke and Wills died. On the one hand, this was a heroic journey — humanity vs. the landscape — on the other hand this was stupidity, given their lack of knowledge of bushcraft. Burke seems to stand out though — there is The Explorer Burke on a Camel (1966), where a naked Burke almost seems to be merging with the camel, a huge empty landscape behind him.
And then there’s Camel and Figure (1966).
Again, the landscape is striking, overwhelming, the camel stretched out toward a ?naked? Burke, almost subservient to him. Apparently nudity is the sign of someone who has given up and is about to die in a desert. Of course, he’s naked in both the paintings.
Finally, Mrs Eliza Anne Fraser was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland in 1836 and claimed to be captured by Aboriginal people. She was rescued by convicts John Graham and (in legend) David Bracewell. In the legend, Bracewell asked for a pardon for escorting her to safety, but was betrayed. Novelist Colin MacInnes suggests we read the legend as an allegory for the relationship between the British empire and convict Australia; they’ve also been read in relation to Nolan’s relationship to Sunday Reed, with whom he’d had an affair. There are three paintings here — Convict in a Billabong (1960), a picture dominated by the browns of the vertical reeds and the light green of the trees, with Bracewell picked out in horizontal white and brown lines that parallel the stripes of the billabong. Meanwhile, Woman and Billabong (1957), a mix of browns, yellows and ochre, Mrs Fraser viewed from behind, in the billabong, to the left a weird figure somewhere between a finger and a phallus, presumably Bracewell? This surprisingly idyllic scene contrasts with the equally brown In the Cave (1957), where there is an almost randomly brown field, presumably the cave, with Bracewell in rather darker brown stripes; Mrs Fraser is drawn as a sexualised figure in supposedly aboriginal style, with a blue, red and yellow stripe as waist. The authentically “primitive” Australian here being envisioned seems at odds with the British empire metaphor.
One painting that seems to be outside the usual series and themes of his work is Peter Grimes’s Apprentice (1977) — a drowned figure in purple inspired by Benjamin Britton’s opera. Nolan and Britten knew each other, presumably through Nolan’s work in opera design, and Britten had died the year before. The drowned boy, with ginger hair, is in purple, with what appears to be a fish hook design on his jumper, which only seems appropriate. He is surrounded by fish, which almost seem like musical notes and are about to chew on him. It is a rather strange Ophelia-theme, peaceful yet fearful, an accidental (and tragic) rather than deliberate death.
And then, finally, I’ll turn to a late self-portrait, Myself (1988), depicting an old man with round glasses, somewhere between John Lennon and infinity, and scrawled over the top a frame like Ned Kelly’s mask — cementing an ongoing identification between Nolan and the convict, whether Kelly or Bracewell (I’m less clear he wants to be Willis). But perhaps he is transported to Britain rather to to Australia, the downunder upended. Scrawled is not quite the word — it is a portrait in spray paints, a long from graffiti but haunted by semilegal street art and apparently typical of his late work. The colours are incredible. (Apparent IKON have an exhibition of the portraits coming up.)
And here’s something that appears to only being discovered slowly — alongside the spray paints, Nolan had used Ripolin, an enamel paint, polyvinyl acetate and other industrial paints. Does this reflect his background in commercial painting — he used what he knew? Might we assume — cultural cringe alert — this was what he had available and so used? Various American pop artists were to use synthetic paints — but Nolan seems to predate them. Not for the first time, we should pay more attention to artists on the fringe of the standard narratives. What becomes very visible are the horizontal or vertical lines of the painting, almost scratched onto the surface.
I also note that most — perhaps all? — of the Tate paintings were donations from Baron McAlpine of West Green, scion of the construction company, property developer in Western Australia, art collector and, er, Tory supporter. I have to confess that he had rather interesting taste in art.