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Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Sidney Nolan in Melbourne
Today, I went to the Ian Potter gallery, part of the National Gallery of Victoria. I have always regarded Victoria's galleries as among the best in Australia and this Nolan exhibition keeps, or perhaps even lifts, the standard. It is all the more surprising to find that the curator of this fine exhibition is Barry Pearce, Head Curator Art Gallery of New South Wales. One mustn't hold this against him but, the last time I looked, the NSW gallery was but a pale shadow of its Melbourne counterpart(s). Perhaps Pearce comes to Melbourne to do his real work.
The exhibition opened only a few days ago. It is the first retrospective since Nolan's death in 1992. I heard about it quite fortuitously on ABC Classic FM (no relation to the insipid version with partly the same name in the UK). Nolan is not an artist with whom I've been over familiar but he combines elements of Spencer and Bacon with what is typically Australian rawness thrown in. Some of his best work is driven by constructive rages: when one of his rich relatives refused him a small loan - about 25 pounds - Nolan reacted by painting furiously. Some of his greatest works came from his aggression. This aggression is apparent in one of his self portraits ('Self Portrait 1943') - one wouldn't want to meet such a man in such a rage, although he comes over very rationally in recorded conversation. But he was also influenced by Rimbaud and Ned Kelly, a strange combination. He saw much of himself in these strange, rebellious characters. There were the early times in Victoria - along the Goulburn Valley, for example - that illuminated perhaps his greatest work: Riverbend I (1964-5) & II, a virtually identical piece. The spectre of Ned Kelly is there, too.
These two great works remind me of nothing so much as Monet's massive water lily painting that sweeps across a wall in New York's gorgeous MOMA. It is in the hanging of Nolan's exquisite work that one finds the very best of a brilliantly-curated exhibition. These two long and dramatic works, sitting opposite each other at the insides of a nearly circular display space, are the highlight of the exhibition. While I would not try to steal them, given the opportunity, I wouldn't say 'No' to either (or both) of them as presents. I'd have to move to a bigger house, though.
Among those I'd make off with would be one of the most representational: one of the views of the unyielding red Australian landscape in Central Australia. I might also go for one of the mine paintings e.g. 'Pretty Polly Mine', or 'The Temptation of St Thomas', an amusing picture of St Thomas being 'tempted' in an Australian landscape, with the devil falling to earth, defeated. One is also aware of the hand of God in one corner... Nolan never quite shuffled off his Catholicism. Looking at his artistic output, the exhibition brilliantly shows Nolan's journey from abstraction, through representation and then back to abstraction again, painting some remarkable scenes in China ('White swans flying over the Karokoram range') and Antartica ('Mt Erebus'). I was slightly surprised not to see his arrestingly naive painting 'Footballer', though.
Nolan's paintings seldom give one pleasure but they do evoke admiration. It was one or two lucky breaks that led to Nolan's recognition outside Australia, otherwise he might have stayed 'just another Victorian painter', of whom there are so many, that just do not travel.
One of his breaks came in the 1970s, when Kenneth Clark was passing through Melbourne on his way to give a talk. He chanced upon one of Nolan's works: 'Old dog mine' or somesuch. Clark couldn't control his excitement, found out Nolan's address and had a difficult bargaining session with one of Nolan's wives - Cynthia, I think - but came away with a work that was to lead to Nolan's fame in Europe and his moving to England/Wales virtually permanently. I shall be looking at Clark's Civilisation and at several Gombrich works to see what they said 'definitively'.
The minor downside is some of the spelling in the descriptions e.g. 'concieved' instead of 'conceived' and 'Ripoin' paint instead of 'Ripolin'. At times, I simply abandoned reading the displays and relied, instead, on the excellent audio guide, on an iPod, of all things - not very reliable, I hear. Such criticisms are minor indeed.
If there is one thing that stands out as a memory of this exhibition, it's the sensation of having seen a masterpiece; but the masterpiece is the exhibition itself: a retrospective of a prolific, painterly painter without a single false note, with the solitary exception of the very early 'Head of Rimbaud', which itself is of historical interest. According to Pearce, Nolan was apt to insinuate newer paintings inappropriately into exhibitions while he was alive. However, at the NGV Potter Gallery, there is nothing substandard about the works nor their presentation. While I would never claim Nolan as my favourite artist, I might well claim that this exhibition is the best I've seen. Mind you, I have yet to see the Russian exhibition at London's RA so I must hurry back to find out, mustn't I?
At least one authority, whose name escapes me, suggests that Nolan's later works, using spray paint, are 'No good.' Pearce never says that explicitly, neither in his notes, nor in his interviews but, given that the latest work exhibited is dated 1986, and that Nolan went on painting prolifically until 1992, the year of his death, one has to draw the conclusion that the unknown critic may have been right.
It isn't very often that I find myself describing an artistic event I have attended. Still less do I wholeheartedly recommend one. I do so in this case; it's well worth the fifteen bucks entrance fee. If you're in Melbourne, or within 1000 km, get yourself there but allow plenty of time and use the audio tour with its extensive additional information, including video. You won't regret it.
[Edited and expanded on 27 & 29 February]
Labels: "Sidney Nolan" Melbourne Art NGV