Sunday, 13 January 2008

Sidney Nolan Retrospective, Art Gallery of NSW

Curator Barry Pearce admits up-front in the video blurb on the dedicated website that most people will immediately recognise the 'First Kelly Series' as most representative of Nolan. He goes on to remark that these paintings represent only a small parcel of the artist's entire corpus of work.

In fact, the 'First Kelly Series' is, indeed, remarkable. This is immediately obvious when you walk a little further through the many rooms set aside for the exhibition, and come across the 'Second Kelly Series', painted maybe a decade later, when the artist was around 40 years old.

In this series, Nolan is trying to accomplish something far more difficult, and he draws on European modernism (particularly Francis Bacon). But the result is not as satisfying as the first series, painted when he was about 30 years old. This may be, however, merely an example of the truth that people only recognise what they already know.

The website contains an interesting little video by Edmund Capon in which he testifies to a firm belief that Nolan is the first truly Australian painter. This is a bold claim. But Capon possesses sufficient gravitas to make it stick. Which is a pity. The canonisation of Nolan, for the exhibition visitor, starts inside the small screening room, where a 12-minute video plays on a loop to a soundtrack of vanila 'classical' music.

The music is a screen, a layer of meaning that adds nothing to the visitor's understanding of why, for example, the young Nolan felt authorised to depart from established forms (one painting in the 'First Kelly Series' quotes fulsomely from the Australian Impressionists and is, in fact, a dud). A member of the Melbourne intelligentsia, Nolan was notably inspired, at an early age, by the French ninteenth-century poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Most people will not know Rimbaud from a lump of soap, but they will perceive the classical music as denoting 'quality', and the juxtaposition, made here, between the elegant kitsch of the eighteenth-century soundtrack and the vicious clarity of Rimbaud, cannot be a fillip for Pearce. He should know better.

Nolan painted a portrait of Rimbaud as a twentysomething and revisited the theme as a mature man. The words of the bard continued to hold value for him. But the curator ignores this fact, knowing that a tall poppy like Rimbaud would be unacceptable as an aesthetic mascot for a presumably down-to-earth painter we must (must!) herald as a uniquely Australian exponent of the great European traditon of oil painting.

He would have been better-off using some Snoop Dog or Frank Zappa for the video backing. The exhibition even contains original editions of the Ern Malley works!

But Nolan is bigger than Pearce even if some of his aspirations are decidedly colonial. If he felt so strongly about the Australian bush, for example, why did he set up his later-years studio on the banks of the Thames?

The pic included here is one of the later works, and demonstrates the huge energy of the older artist. Without doubt these later works are superior even to the 'First Kelly Series' and the pity is that nobody (myself included) has ever seen them before.

Like Donald Friend, whose wonderful domestic still-lifes of later years are completely unknown, Nolan achieved a clarity and richness of vision that eschewed the pat nationalism of the overrated 'First Kelley Series', in these fantastic late works. The shame is that they will never achieve the renown of the work of his first majority.

In addition, he painted some rather marvellous chinoiseries that Capon, as an admitted fan of Asian art, should do more to promote.

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