Sidney Nolan is one of the best known Australian artists, and needs no introduction. Creator of the iconic Ned Kelly helmet emblem, for sixty years his paintings and his life have been scrutinised, sanitised, scarified and sensationalised in countless monographs, biographies, catalogue essays and weekend magazines.
From the artistic truancies of his St Kilda ‘kitsch heaven’ and the lyrical palettes of his Heide years with their magical Kellys; through his central Australian landscapes, his drought carcasses, his Mrs Frasers, his Ledas and Swans, his Gallipolis, his Malleys; through the searching mysteries of his Oedipus works (‘but what do they mean Sidney’ queried Kenneth Clarke), through the dark recesses of his Shakesperian sonnets and the bile and beauty of his Paradise Gardens; to the massive and hauntingly evocative spray painted canvasses of his late period …… by the time he died in 1992 aged seventy five, Nolan had produced literally countless works. Some say thirty thousand, some fifty.
The sheer volume of his works, the intensity of their themes with their national, cultural and mythological significance, his desertion from the army, his absence from Australia, his British knighthood, his unparalleled successes, his loves and his famous fallings-out – all this is the stuff of legend. And made a legend of Nolan his many cataloguers, curators and historians certainly have. In all this it seems difficult to find the real Sidney Nolan – perhaps for the very good reason, as those who knew him well will say, that there was more than one Sid and he did his best, usually with success, to disguise them all. Strange then that much of his work seems so autobiographical – but as in Picasso’s aphorism, “art is a lie that tells the truth’.
The essays and articles in aCOMMENT will not attempt to revisit well-trodden Nolan ground, nor play the amateur psychologist. Rather, they will attempt to look at his work and his life somewhat differently by following random themes (such as ‘What price a Nolan?’ and ‘Threads’). This could shed new light on this painter whose private poem Oz Digger concludes that the wonders of the world were simply
‘…. the jar
Of my father’s cart he drove me in.
The arctic mist on the many fleeces –
Sweet heaven in pieces.’
and on the man for whom his friend Randolph Stow wrote the poem ‘The Land’s Meaning’, the last lines speaking to him in his English home
“I was bushed for forty years.
And I came to a bloke all alone like a kurrajong tree.
And I said to him: ‘Mate – I don’t need to know your name -
let me camp in your shade, let me sleep, till the sun goes down’.”
Posts on Sidney Nolan include:
Proposed posts on Sidney Nolan, either in preparation or planned, include:
The eyes have it: This piece will look at Ballets Russes and Blakean influences on the floating angel, weeping eyes and tent motifs Nolan frequently used in his late 30s early 40s paintings.
a.k.a. Robin Murray: This piece will examine the alias adopted by Nolan upon going AWL during the war, and links to a revealing and, to date, unreported visual signature in one of his better known Kelly paintings which gives an important clue to his attitude to Sunday Reed.
The Ones That Got Away, or What Price a Nolan? A Cautionary Tale of Art Auction Catalogues
A Diet of Tripe
A Nolan bibliography: monographs, biographies, books, essays, catalogues and articles
The True Inner History of the Kelly Gang
Nolan’s Nolans: Learning from the kept works
The 1946 South Melbourne Town Hall Exhibition
Nolan’s La Belle Dame sans Merci
Nolan and Poetic Prescience: Malley and Shakespeare
Paradise Garden Revisited
Sweet Heaven in Pieces: Shedding the albatross
The Vomiting Man Snake