Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
All eyes, singling out the heroic outsider
For the mid-century generations Sidney Nolan was one of a handful who took the oxymoron out of “intelligent Australian”. There were other talents, of course, other painters; the Boyds and Tuckers and Olsens. But Nolan was different. Profoundly verbal as well as intensely visual, he became one of the demigod gang who seemed effortlessly to drop smart, funny or entrancingly insightful utterances into the swirling global conversation with a clear Australian accent. They included – include – Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and, more latterly, Peter Carey and Geraldine Brooks. And they are, quite rightly, our heroes. They use Australia as both base and material and yet they choose, almost without exception, to live elsewhere, in what we think of as the world.
It’s very Australian, this heroic outsider stance, at once voluntary and involuntary; something we might even call a national self-image. And it informed Nolan’s choice of subjects, as well as his trajectory.
There’s Rimbaud, the iridescently foul-mouthed French catamite. There’s the naked and shipwrecked Mrs Fraser. There’s Burke and the decomposing Wills, or is it Wills and the decomposing Burke? There’s self, as in portrait. And there is, of course, Kelly.
Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly are so closely identified that even the scholars, who are many and heavy, sometimes get the names switched, much as a mother might call Sid Ned, and vice versa. Imagining Ned Kelly, you picture first the black iron mask from “planet Sid” – its image burnt into our collective retina – and only then the bearded bushranger looking out through the slot.
It is this slot that Nolan used to such effect, playing endlessly with its painterly qualities, as a frame within a frame, and its psychological weight as an absent presence. The mask made Nolan famous, and yet it was no more Kelly’s mask than his own.
Nolan is revered not just as a painter, though Kenneth Clark was no doubt right to recognise his genius in this direction and whisk him off to London in the early 1950s, but for what he painted; the stories, our stories. And yet he was bored by the bush. Blown away aesthetically, by its unutterable beauty, but bored by its presence and even by the characters he so consciously superimposed, including Burke and Wills. As he noted in old age: “I’m masquerading as a narrative painter, on the simple basis that the peasants will understand.”
And they did. The peasants responded viscerally to the stiff dead coppers, the red chequerboard floor, the burnt orange landscape and the soot-black mask, lustrously rendered in Dulux and Ripolin, even as the scholars dug away at links to Rimbaud or Spengler or Malevich. This, be it marketing strategy or just another aspect of genius, was something Nolan shared with Shakespeare; the capacity to spark with equal brilliance on many levels. And one of the keys to it, something largely ignored by what the curator, Barry Pearce, calls the “veritable Everest of opinion” on Nolan, is the eyes.
To enter the Art Gallery of NSW’s wonderful, luminous Nolan retrospective is to enter a forest, a universe of eyes. They come in three main styles. There are the leaf-shaped ones, all frontal stare, brilliant white and dead-centre irises, that he slapped onto most portraits and not a few Kellys. There are the round, frog’s-egg eyes, as in First-Class Marksman, where the eyes have rolled like yellow jelly-balls along the slot towards Kelly’s prey; a slot that is otherwise entirely vacant, washed by the great Spenglerian flux. And there are the small, bruised eyes of the nameless ones, like the grim church-dressed family in Giggle Palace, glowering from the beach.
And then there are permutations, such as the bespectacled Young Monkey staring beseechingly from its watery space odyssey and the blind, blood-red squares-for-eyes of the second Kelly series, where Ned – changed by fire into something between Darth Vader and Jesus – stares blankly from that Laura Ashley Gethsemane.
All of which makes you wonder what it is that Nolan isn’t painting. Whose is the absence, the story he refuses to tell?
It may be, as has been speculated from his lapsed-Catholic background, that Christ’s is the absent presence throughout the Nolan oeuvre. Christ, whom he regarded as too literal for art; the emblem of love and sacrifice, the ultimate in heroic outsiders. The suggestions are there, from the cruciform nakedness floating pale and bare among the bare, pale trees in Riverbend to the naked, bareback (but still masked) Kelly in River Bank.
Even as a child, Nolan intuited his outsider status, recalling later a sense, in the school parade ground, of “the atoms, or electrons or something, streaming through [him] at an enormous rate”. Nolan, like any painter worth his salt but a lot better than most, wasn’t painting stories or people or nature. He was painting his own inner landscape, arid and luminous, peopled and charred. The mask was his own, as heroic outsider, doomed poet, martyr; his mask, and ours.