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Sidney Nolan A Life by Nancy Underhill cover
Sidney Nolan: A Life
by Nancy Underhill
NewSouth Books
416pp
49.99 AU
Published June, 2015
ISBN 9781921410888

My favourite Sidney Nolan story is the one he told about a painting from the first Ned Kelly series, which now exists as two panels called Burning at Glenrowan and Siege at Glenrowan, respectively. He was talking to Elwyn Lynn and his remarks were reproduced as part of a commentary on the works included in Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly (1985), a collection of the Kelly drawings and paintings held by the Australian National Gallery:

These were once joined together and I had Mrs Reardon and her baby still fleeing for their lives. It was once six feet by four, but late one night Jack Bellew, a journalist, said, ‘Look, Sid, that painting is too bloody big, cut it in two.’ I told him to leave it alone, but to prove it was not too big, I would cut it in two. You see, I come from a long line of Irishmen. So I cut it and looked at them separated and together, and they looked better together. Unfortunately I parted them forever.

Here we have the characteristic Nolan insouciance, the dark humour and devil-may-care refusal to be weighed down by the consequences of actions that may have been foolish or worse, and that peculiar combination, which proved to be lifelong, of wise child and innocent abroad. The Glenrowan paintings were made in late 1946, when Nolan was living between his studio in Melbourne and the house at Heide owned by John and Sunday Reed. They come towards the end of the first series of Kelly paintings. He was about to turn 30.

It had been an astonishing decade: he experimented with a variety of materials and styles before the breakthrough early works of the late 1930s and early 1940s: Moonboy, Head of Rimbaud (which uses Kiwi boot polish as a pigment), Tent; the collages made from cut steel engravings or torn up books and fabrics; the semi-abstract paintings of Luna Park at St. Kilda. In 1940, he went to Sydney to design sets for the Russian Ballet’s production of Icare. Then, in 1942, he was called up into the army and despatched to the Wimmera, where his duties consisted of guarding supply trains against a non-existent Japanese threat; and where he learned how to begin to paint Australian landscapes from a point of view that is dug deep into the dirt and somehow elevated above it too, looking down.

The Ern Malley Affair broke wide open in 1944 and Nolan, who was part of the Angry Penguins editorial triumvirate that otherwise consisted of John Reed and Max Harris, was heavily implicated. He never resiled from his belief in the value of the Malley corpus and would later remark that, without Ern, there would have been no Ned. By the time those epochal paintings were made, he was on the run himself, having deserted from the army, apparently because he feared being sent to New Guinea, where there was real fighting, and real dying. He stowed his rifle and his kitbag in a friend’s attic and took the name Robin Murray, though it does not seem as if the authorities made any serious attempt to hunt him down.

As everybody knows, John and Sunday Reed, patron and muse respectively (or something else entirely?) were agents in the apotheosis of Sidney Nolan, but that threesome fractured around the time of the completion, in early 1947, of the first set of Kelly paintings. Nolan went off to Queensland, leaving the 26 works behind as a gift for Sunday. They were exhibited briefly in Melbourne in 1948, but did not become widely known until a decade or more later. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that Nolan did not realise what he had accomplished, above all in the invention of the helmet, and that he was not fully cognisant of the dilemma he now faced: what on earth was he going to do next? It was his Rimbaud moment, but he decided to go on; probably he had no choice. You might say that, after Glenrowan, the oeuvre fractures in two: before Kelly, after Kelly.

In Queensland, he painted a series of works about Mrs Fraser, stranded among the Aborigines of the island that now bears her name, and the convict Bracefell, who saved her and was then betrayed. He went to Central Australia and did the bird’s-eye-view blood-red landscapes, as seen out the window of Eddie Connellan’s aeroplane, or in Axel Poignant’s photographs. There was a series of paintings of Burke and Wills, and a number of exquisite landscapes that are not as well known as they deserve to be. In 1949, Kenneth Clark saw a couple of works at the Art Gallery of NSW and went up to Wahroonga, where Nolan was living, having married John Reed’s sister Cynthia, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Nolans went to Europe for a visit in 1951 and then, in 1953, moved permanently abroad. Sidney painted in Italy and Greece in the mid 1950s; Cynthia wrote travel books. He made 75 works on the theme of Leda and the Swan, and another set, of unknown extent, about Gallipoli. Some of these were done in New York. In the early 1960s, he travelled to Africa and then to Antarctica and made some extraordinary paintings about each of those places. The Kelly series culminated in what may be his masterpieces, the two nine-panel Riverbend paintings of the mid 1960s. In Adelaide, there is another multi-panel work, Inferno, which began as an illustration for Robert Lowell’s translation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women (1961), but morphed into a strange, moving and surely underrated painting. Then there was the presciently titled Desert Storm, another multi-panel take on the Outback.

From the late 1960s into the early 1970s, Nolan was absorbed in the production of the massive Oceania TriptychShark, Paradise Garden, Snake – which is all but indescribable, and which Nolan considered the pinnacle of his life’s work. They are conceptually elegant, visually splendid mosaics made out of a multitude of sets of six individual paintings, which come together to form magisterial compositions that, apart from a single showing in Dublin in 1973, have not been seen in their entirety.

There were more Ern Malley themed paintings in the 1970s, and an innovative, perhaps misconceived, take on the Eureka Stockade. He managed to offend all but his most ardent supporters with a 1975 London show called Notes on Oedipus. There is no evidence that he cared, and some that it may have been a deliberate provocation. In the mid 1980s, Nolan revisited the Burke and Wills story and made some paintings that are, to my eye, stronger than those from the early 1950s. There is a magnificent late series of paintings of Australia, called simply Miners, that seems retrospectively prophetic, if such a thing can be; and a large number – no one seems to know quite how many – of very beautiful diaphanous paintings of China, where Nolan went again and again in the latter part of his life.

To these must be added the monumental theatre designs, from Icare in 1940, to The Rite of Spring in 1962 at the Royal Opera House in Convent Garden, London, to Samson et Dalila at the same venue in 1981, and – his last excursion – Mozart’s Seraglio in 1987, again at Covent Garden. He did a prodigious amount of work as an illustrator and book cover designer. He had a long association with composer Benjamin Britten and among their collaborations are the dark and fearsome illustrations Nolan did to go with a publication of the Bertolt Brecht ballad The Childrens Crusade, which Britten set to music and Peter Pears sang.

The boy who, on his way to school in the mornings of the 1920s, drew huge abstracts in the sand at St. Kilda beach ended up in the early 1990s looking like some kind of bizarre insect, perhaps a dragonfly, suspended from a specially built harness in the barn at The Rodd, on the Welsh border, where he lived with his third wife Mary, a Boyd, using spray cans to paint those late, misty, pastel-coloured works with which his career as a painter closes. He left behind an estimated 40 000 works, among which there is much that may be accounted dross, but also many incomparably luminous, enigmatic, magnificent paintings that look as fresh today as they did when they were first made.

There have been many attempts to come to terms in print with the Nolan phenomenon, but only one full length biography, Such is Life (1987) by Brian Adams, which drew on a series of interviews Adams, a film maker and journalist, conducted with Nolan in the preceding two years. It is entertaining but unreliable in most of its particulars, given that it is made up of Nolan’s recollection of events, which others dispute or remember differently. Cartoonist Saul Steinberg, who knew him in New York, is quoted:

Every word that Sidney says is camouflage. Everything he says goes off on a trail away from what he really believes, thinks, intends to do, has done in the past. He is like the bird dragging a wing, leading the hunter away from its nest and young.

Now we have a second biography by art historian and curator Nancy Underhill. It may be seen as the third panel of a triptych, after her co-edited edition of John Reed’s letters (2001), and her compilation, Nolan on Nolan (2007). It is a substantial work, handsomely produced and attractively, if erratically, illustrated; and, as a biography, it is in almost every respect unsatisfactory. Underhill has extensive knowledge of the life and the work, and, more generally, of the art scene both in Australia and internationally, as well as having had privileged access to the Nolan estate. She also has forthright and persuasive opinions which she knows how to defend, and to defend well. Yet the book is a mess. It is full of non sequiturs, long pointless digressions, endless repetitions. The chronology is botched, and there are mangled, ugly or just incomprehensible sentences on every page. People are mentioned by name before they are introduced, or introduced before they really enter the story, or simply remain as mysteries in the text. Certain figures – Robert Lowell, Stephen Spender – appear again and again, but nowhere is there a summation of exactly what their relationship with Nolan might actually have been like. Other, more intrinsic characters, such as the Reeds or Cynthia Nolan, are constantly alluded to, but left largely unexamined. It is the same with those writers and artists who may be presumed – Rimbaud is one example, the Russian expatriate artist Danila Vassilieff another – to have exerted a determining influence on how Nolan’s work unfolded: they appear many times, then, like mute ghosts, fade away again.

A biographer has to be able to order information and then present it clearly and comprehensibly: this book does neither. There is no clarity to the exposition and, more seriously, no over-arching theme or real insight into the character of its subject. Like Underhill’s previous book, Nolan on Nolan, it is an accumulation of disparate material, resembling, to my mind, nothing so much as a mound scratched up by a brush turkey. In fact, it is not really a biography at all, but a series of loosely conceived essays that circle around certain facts, or suppositions, without ever coming to any conclusion. Sometimes it reads as if Underhill is talking to herself.

And yet there are jewels, unhatched eggs, within the mound. Underhill has an eye for salient details: she excavates, from an interview Nolan gave to Bernard Smith in the early 1960s, the information that he had an association in the mid 1930s with Cyril Leyshon-White’s commercial art school in Melbourne and there met Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, just back from one of their painting trips to the interior. This makes a connection between Nolan’s late 1940s landscapes and Gardner’s early, almost unknown, oil paintings of outback Australia, though Underhill does not pursue it.

Underhill refers several times, but only in passing, to the bizarre episode, in the 1940s, when John Reed attempted to affiliate his Contemporary Art Society with the Communist Party of Australia and even, perhaps, to make Angry Penguins the official organ of the CPA. Clem Christesen’s straddling of the divide between the socialist left and the avant-garde comes to mind, but the connections are not explored. She mentions that the recent sale of Nolan’s 1620 panel magnum opus Snake to David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart resolved the financial problems the Nolan Trust was experiencing at the time but, frustratingly, never explains exactly what those problems were, nor how they came to be.

There is new information: Underhill establishes that the family myth that Sid’s grandfather helped in the hunt for the real Ned Kelly is in fact true, but that he was not, as has often been claimed, a Catholic but a Protestant. She gives a more nuanced account of Kenneth Clarke’s ‘discovery’ of the Nolan paintings at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1949, which was less a case of serendipity than efficient networking. She has interviewed both of Nolan’s gallery assistants in London and had some long talks with Lord Alistair McAlpine, Nolan’s sometime patron and friend (and Margaret Thatcher’s fundraiser). There are anecdotes, most of which revolve around Nolan’s persona as a charming rogue, with a roll of banknotes in his pocket, a plausible line of fairground blag, and an uncertain grasp of the need for exact accounting during commercial transactions.

The book posits a mystery on its back cover, quoting a statement Nolan made to Adams, about the so-called autobiographical dimension to the Kelly paintings:

Really the Kelly paintings are secretly about myself. You would be surprised if I told you. From 1945 to 1947 there were emotional and complicated events in my own life. It’s an inner history of my own emotions, but I am not going to tell you about them.

This was probably a reference to the fact that Nolan was a deserter, effectively on the run, when they were painted – as Underhill sensibly concludes quite early in the book. Then she seems to forget about it, in favour of a parallel explanation: that they also constitute a commentary on Nolan’s complex relationship with the Reeds.

I don’t think they do, and I don’t really think Underhill does either. But she cannot leave the supposition alone. It recurs, again and again, throughout several long rambling chapters in the first half of the book, and then intermittently in the mercifully shorter chapters in the second part. What really went on at Heide during those years is not yet clear and may not become so until the Reed papers, currently embargoed, become available. That the Kelly paintings dramatise one man’s doomed struggle to achieve independence of thought and action is, however, a viable position to take and that may be what Nolan, in his enigmatic way, meant. His status as a deserter worried him all his life – or at least until his knighthood in 1981 gave him some sort of legitimacy.

This highlights the most distressing aspect of Underhill’s biography: her characterisation of Nolan as devious, cynical, addicted to self-promotion, essentially amoral and dedicated above all to ensuring his own worldly success, whatever the cost. This character emerges out of an attempt by Underhill to counter what she sees as Nolan’s self-mythologising tendencies and, more seriously, his estate’s attempts to guard, and perhaps sanitise, his reputation since his death in 1992. Somewhat contradictorily, she then glosses these strategies – at least those which operated while Nolan was still alive – as an attractive form of larrikinism and thus largely forgives her subject his peccadilloes. Nolan’s larger crimes, by implication, stand condemned: his desertion of his first wife, just after their daughter was born; the breakwith Sunday Reed at Heide and the subsequent guerrilla war, essentially over possession of the Kelly paintings, which was fought out for years between the Nolans and the Reeds; the suicide of his second wife Cynthia; his hasty third marriage to Mary Boyd, which forever alienated Nolan from the affections of Patrick White.

There is another explanation: the work suggests an intensely responsive person who registered with great sensitivity the vagaries in the emotional lives of those he knew and used them, if that is the word, to articulate a tragic vision. Nolan’s self-mythologising might not have been in the service of a monstrous ego; it may have been a means of deflecting attention from his real, and more painful, concerns.

He was also a man with a compulsion to make art and one who derived intense pleasure from that making. The sheer exuberance of his image-making is, to me, evidence of a kind of ethical commitment, and the generosity with which he disposed of those works which remained unsold testament to his belief in the value of art as a contribution to public life. His private life was another matter, and he clearly wished it to remain private. We can’t know what he felt about the sundering from the Reeds, nor can we really say what Cynthia’s suicide meant to him – but it is surely significant that, after her death in a London hotel in 1976, he never returned to the house they shared in Putney.

Such a person makes a difficult subject for any biographer, but not an impossible one. A review of Brian Adam’s book by John Ness Barkes in the Spectator made the point that ‘all of Nolan’s life has been spent in the company of strong-willed, devoted women, each in turn absolutely vital to his motivation and inspiration’. His mother, Dora, is the first of these women. The others are his first wife Elizabeth Paterson (herself an artist), Sunday Reed, Cynthia Nolan and Mary Boyd. He clearly could not operate without their devotion and support and yet, just as clearly, could not reciprocate except by means of the making of art. This Rimbaudian dynamic determined the kind of life he lived and should probably form the starting point when, and if, another biographer tries to tell the tale.

Sidney Nolan: A Life, the author tells us in the introduction, was written at the behest of her publishers and so may be taken as a commissioned work. What were they thinking? A publisher once suggested to me that I write a book about Burke and Wills, because books on that subject sell well; the same may be true of books about Sidney Nolan. Marketing departments aside, it is not subject matter that makes a good book; as such, the publishers must take some of the responsibility for this one: it is as much a failure of editing as it is of writing. Indeed, it is scarcely believable that a reputable house would consent to put out something as hopelessly muddled as this book is.

Nolan’s character is not delineated in any intelligible manner, his life is not presented as a coherent whole, and his achievement as an artist is not honoured. It is occluded and left equivocal — even, perhaps, nugatory. Nothing, apart from a few nuggets of information, some resonant anecdotes, fragments of gossip and a great deal of futile speculation, is added to two recent books, T. G. Rosenthal’s Sidney Nolan (2002), and the catalogue for the retrospective Barry Pearce curated at the Art Gallery of NSW (2007). Both of these books have faults. Rosenthal’s presents Nolan’s oeuvre thematically not chronologically, and as a result is sometimes confusing; the Pearce retrospective did not know what to do about the later work, and settled for an arbitrary selection of stand-alone works, while more or less ignoring the Oceania Triptych. Yet each gives a convincing summation of the work in the context of brief, lucid biographies.

What kind of an artist was Sidney Nolan? When I was starting to think again about his work, I posted some images, randomly, online, to see what sort of responses they drew. I was surprised how many people found the African paintings, for instance, or the Heads of Soldiers from the Gallipoli series, or the late Miners, reminiscent, not to say derivative, of the work of his contemporary, Francis Bacon. Clearly there was some influence, but Nolan’s heads, however Baconesque they may now appear, are firmly rooted in his earliest work, from Moonboy to the excoriating self-portrait from 1943 that graces the cover of Underhill’s book. His own comment on Bacon, made in the 1950s, was that Bacon was a powerful painter but pictorially uninteresting.

This emphasises a basic difference between the two artists: Nolan was primarily a maker of images and his backgrounds, even at their most perfunctory, are an intrinsic part of the image. His figures are always in landscapes and the landscapes themselves remain intensely evocative, whether we are looking at the plains of Africa, the startling blues and whites of Antarctica, or the blood red toiling moonscapes of the Kimberley – desert places all. Or the massed trees, like forgotten indigenes, along the shores of the Goulburn River. Before, or rather in, these landscapes, his mutant and mutable figures stand like prodigies of unknown import, wordless survivors of catastrophe or witnesses to an unfolding drama whose end is not yet known.

Nolan has a reputation as a literary painter, but I do not think this can be sustained. He was a big reader, and liked to suggest some kind of intellectual or literary background for the genesis of his images. But that was their beginning, not their realisation. In the best works, the images are irreducible, they cannot be translated into any other terms apart from their own. It was not his fault that his most persuasive appropriation, Ned Kelly’s helmet, arrived so early in his painting career. It would become, as he accurately predicted, a millstone round his neck. Such is life.

Nevertheless, there is a kind of heroism in the way he continued to exercise his image making ability in an inventive, extravagant and beguiling manner over the next 40 years. Nor is it a dereliction of his duty that the later work has still not been properly assessed. As Rosenthal said in 2002, a good biography must be written before such an assessment becomes possible. Unfortunately, this is not it. We need – Nolan needs – something like what Darleen Bungey accomplished in her meticulous reconstruction of the life of Arthur Boyd (2007). Until that happens, Nolan’s oeuvre will remain, as it was after Glenrowan, severed. But when the two halves are put back together again – then we may see something wonderful.