Investigating an Art Outlaw

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While stationed at Dimboola as an army conscript in World War II, Sidney Nolan wrote to his art patron and lover, Sunday Reed, of the loneliness and isolation he felt in the wheat belt of northern Victoria: "There is so little to break the vision and the whole landscape appears to surround you everywhere except the particular minute patch that is yourself. Something like dipping the spoon in the cream."

Nolan's was a vision fresh. A year after the war, into the painter's profoundly empty blue and gold Wimmera landscapes charged 19th century outlaw Ned Kelly, up close and personal. It was as if the land had given birth to this legend, and in painting his story, Nolan gave the landscape a new personality-seen from inside a bushranger's helmet. The rifle Kelly holds aloft in the eponymous 1946 picture might as well have been a broom, as the painting swept all the romantic cobwebs of the Heidelberg School away.

With Sidney Nolan (Thames & Hudson; 304 pages), English art critic Tom Rosenthal, too, seeks to take a broom to legend-that of Australia's most acclaimed painter (1917-1992). In the first comprehensive book survey of Nolan's art since 1961, Rosenthal dusts off an oeuvre of epic spaciousness: from the artist's early St. Kilda work, which led to the first Kelly series, to the other mythic themes Nolan would tirelessly explore over the next four decades (shipwreck survivor Eliza Fraser, explorers Burke and Wills, Leda and the Swan, Gallipoli). His thesis-that Nolan found triumph in failure-may not be new, but with 370 reproductions, including five polyptych foldouts, it has never been more handsomely illustrated. "This most cerebral and intellectual of artists has patiently analyzed the bushranger who was caught by the police, the explorers who did everything wrong, the soldiers whose leaders took on an impossible military venture," Rosenthal writes, "and has given us universal images of baroque grandeur and renaissance humanity."

A decade after his death, Nolan's reckless legacy is finally being shored up. As well as the international release of Rosenthal's monograph, the National Gallery of Australia's 26 Kelly pictures have traveled across the Tasman for the first time, where they are on view at Wellington's City Gallery until May 19; next month also sees the unveiling of the artist's little-seen sculptures in Melbourne; Marcus Graham is set to star as the handsome young bohemian in a film about Heide, the artists' retreat where Ned Kelly was painted on the kitchen table; and a major Nolan show is being curated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, to open in 2004. "With every great artist, when he dies, the work dies," says Rosenthal. "Nolan is coming very good and very strong again."

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Sidney Nolan is 370,000 words strong, laying out in plain view all the artist's strengths and weaknesses. Nolan's early work was radically, dazzlingly different. His youthful Boy and the Moon, 1939-40, looms like the light bulb of his prodigious talent. When the similarly abstract Head of Rimbaud first appeared at the inaugural Contemporary Art Society exhibition in 1939, it was met with derision: "Tell me, Mr Nolan, what exactly is a rimbaud?" the society's secretary quipped. "A French cheese?" His collages of 19th century steel engravings were smartly postmodern half a century before postmodernism. Aesthetically, his comic, color-soaked Kelly images presaged Pop. And culturally, his reimaginings of Eliza Fraser and Burke and Wills helped reawaken Australian literature-Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves and Alan Moorehead's Cooper's Creek came decades later. For his Booker Prize–winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey was inspired as much by the Nolans he saw for the first time at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994 as by history.

A swimmer and cyclist, Nolan wasn't so much an Angry Penguin-a member of the wartime modernist movement he pioneered with Albert Tucker and John Perceval-as an athletic one. That coiled energy is all there in his 1943 self-portrait at the Art Gallery of New South Wales-in the electricity of his gaze and the alertness of his brushes, which quiver like artistic arrows ready to be fired. "He had an exceptional hand-eye coordination," recalls Rosenthal, who befriended Nolan after the artist moved to London in 1955, "which of course every good artist has to have. But in Sidney's case it was spectacular-the speed with which he did things."

His strength was also his weakness. The brilliant clarity of Nolan's memories and his ability to reproduce them quickly in fast-drying Ripolin enamel without preparatory drawings brought freshness to his painting, but also resulted in a spectacularly uneven body of work-which Rosenthal numbers at 10,000. That doesn't include the thousands of individually drawn panels that make up Oceania, 1968-73, the titanic mural project which traverses foyers from the Victorian Arts Centre to the Sydney Opera House. Beautiful for sure, this outburst of energy also gives the sense of a talent dissipating into decorativeness. And moving permanently to England, where he became part of the art establishment, Nolan-the self-taught son of a tram worker-seemed to lose his outsider edge. Themes were repeated, symbols confused, and the iconoclast became an iron-clad icon himself. In his last self-portrait, Nolan is framed by a Ned Kelly mask.

The Thames & Hudson book has begun the task of dismantling that mask. "It was an outpouring of 30-odd years of trying to work things out," says Rosenthal. Yet even after his massive undertaking was assembled, the author was left with questions-the artist's obsession with stripes (there in the 1943 self-portrait), for instance, and a troubling sense of misogyny in his works. All of which will have to wait for a more definitive analysis of Nolan's art. For the moment, the artist with his armory and camouflage stripes remains tantalizingly elusive-and as powerful as ever.

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