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Sir Sidney Nolan OM RA - 1917-1992

An Irish Context - Essay by William Laffan

There is a dynamic flux within the art of Sidney Nolan. A fault line lies balanced precariously between the local, specific and quotidian and the universal, metaphorical and mythic. Nolan is celebrated in his native Australia, precisely because of the Australian subject matter of so much of his art – painter of the outback, of mining towns, of bathing at St Kilda’s. In his famous Ned Kelly series he created a work of iconic and national status. However, in addition to the specifically local charge of his work, the present exhibition celebrates the universality of the themes with which he engages. Nolan fiercely resisted attempts to cast him in the role of the national painter of Australia. As early as 1960, Stephen Spender argued that this ….limited the ambitious scope of his work, arguing instead that Nolan has a ‘world consciousness, and, at times…expresses a world conscience.’1 In Nolan’s hands, even so resolutely Australian a character as Ned Kelly relates to archetypal figures from world folklore, Punchinello, Punch, or Petrusksa: ‘the invincible hero of the puppet show [who] defeats everyone and everybody – the police, the clergy – even death and the devil – while he himself remains immortal’.2

However, as well as the acknowledging, and playing with, the universality of the figure of Ned Kelly, there can be no doubt that for Nolan part of his attraction was the fact that the artist rejoiced in the Irish heritage he shared with the outlaw. His international outlook was shaped by his awareness of another culture on the other side of the world to which he belonged both by descent and instinct. Towards the end of his life he was to note that his ‘easiest relationship with people [was] in Ireland’.3 Exploring this theme, the present exhibition invites an interpretation of Nolan not just as the leading painter of twentieth-century Australia, but as one of the most important artistic voices of the Irish Diaspora. Brian Adams in his biography, with which the artist closely collaborated, stressed the importance of ‘the land of his Celtic roots, which probably as much as any other influence, helped to mould his personality.’4 This aspect of Nolan’s art was again recently explored by the then director of the National Gallery of Australia, the Irish scholar Brian Kennedy. He recalls the 1973 exhibition of Nolan’s work at the Royal Dublin Society, through which ‘Ireland became aware of the extent of Nolan's genius’. This home coming was of great importance to the artist, Kennedy notes how ‘the bond of ancestry [was] very close’. Nolan was sixth-generation Australian but was pleased to be Irish Australian too’. Themes such as Ned Kelly’s life and death, raising issues of colonialism, authority and justice, have a specific charge in an Irish context. As Kennedy continues: ‘the battle between regulation and freedom resonates strongly in Ireland and in Australia’. 5

The exhibition at the R.D.S. towards the end of his life encouraged Nolan to explore his Irish heritage and reciprocally for Ireland to recognise the very Irishness of so much of his work. As with so many of emigrant stock, this was not at the expense of his Australian identity but was complimentary to it. His biographer notes ‘Nolan’s strong commitment to Ireland’ while at the same time, his profound belief in Australia.6 The Dublin exhibition, opened by the Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, comprised three huge panels Oceania: Paradise Garden, Shark and Snake, which together included over four thousand separate images. As Adams puts it ‘St Patrick may have banished snakes from this land, but here before their eyes was a 150 foot serpent stretched magically across an escarpment of paintings’.7 The R.D.S., home to the annual Dublin horse fair, had certainly seen nothing like this before. Sir Kenneth Clark addressed the Dublin audience: Nolan ‘is not simply a rebel, that is something we can all share and rather enjoy sharing. He sees very deep into the recess of the mind and he finds there a feeling of menace.’8 However, the delicate equilibrium between themes of rebellion sanctioned by art, and the reality of putting abstract ideals of liberty into political practice was brought to the fore by the link Clark made in his speech between Ned Kelly and Che Guevara. This was too piquantly au courant in Dublin of the 1970s for some to tolerate – Conor Cruise O’Brien was seen to raise an eyebrow – and at length a ‘loud Irish voice suggested [Clark] shut up’9

Despite negative responses such as this, the exhibition was generally perceived to have been a success and some years afterwards Nolan cemented his links with Ireland through the gift of a group of pictures to the Irish State. These are now housed in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, at Kilmainhaim. He chose his subject matter carefully, donating works from his Wild Geese series of 1989. In doing so he made an explicit link between the soldiers forced to flee Ireland for France and Spain in the seventeenth century and those, like his ancestors, who had left through economic pressure to seek new lives in America and Australia. In one of the pictures donated to the State, he personalises the link with these early émigrés, painting himself in the role of Captain Moses who, returning to Ireland from the continent in 1720, was hanged in Dublin for treason. The parallels with the death of Ned Kelly are unavoidable and it is significant that Nolan use these figures of the Irish Diaspora to explore some of the most personal themes of his art.10

Kenneth Clark, one of Nolan’s greatest supporters for many decades had earlier championed the art of Jack Yeats and despite the many differences, there are also points of fundamental connection in the two artists’ use of personal myth and historic antecedent in their work. Like Nolan, Yeats was unhappy with the burden frequently thrust on him of the position of ‘national painter’; the same themes of personal freedom, isolation, memory and loss resonate in their respective oeuvres. Similarly, one of Nolan’s earliest ventures as an art student was preparing a series of illustrations for Joyce’s Ulysses which he spent weeks reading in the State Library of Victoria. Indeed whole elements of his mythopoesis can be seen as depending on literary techniques pioneered by the novelist. As in rather different ways with both Jack Yeats and Joyce, in Nolan’s work the line between the everyday and the eternal, between fact and myth, is blurred constantly, and enigmatically, shifting.

Irish identity and hence Irish visual culture have in recent years become more broadly defined, specifically by Mary Robinson’s embrace of the Diaspora. Certainly, Nolan would today receive a more celebratory welcome in Dublin than did his exhibition thirty years ago. To acknowledge this, the Pyms Gallery exhibition is a modest attempt to foreground Irish elements within Nolan’s art. This is not in itself a novel critical approach to take. These fundamental aspects of his art were noted, for example, by Wallace Thornton in his comments on Nolan’s 1967 Sydney exhibition. Thornton identified a deep seriousness of intent at the core of Nolan’s art, though perceptively understanding the sprezzatura of the visual vocabulary with which it was clothed. ‘There is an Irish lilt and élan a style that encompasses simple visual story-telling vast landscapes, dark history or pointed satire’.11 Definitions of Irish art have long included English visitors, and those born in the country but who rejected it as soon as they could for successful careers in London. Surely, it is time to also embrace within the canon those artists of Irish descent born in England, Australia and America, who, like Nolan, responded so vibrantly to their heritage, who engaged with modern Ireland and made use of Irish imagery and subject matter in their art.

Ultimately, however, it is perhaps reductive to discuss Nolan, such an international artist and so free a spirit, solely in terms of Irish, or even Australian, identity. Thornton continues by instead identifying the life-affirming and universal humanity at the heart of his work which transcends state and nationality. ‘One can trace though the description, sagas and horrors the vital spirit of man himself.’12


1Quoted J. Clark, Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, A Retrospective Exhibition: 1937-1987 (Sydney 1987) 138.
2Quoted Robert Melville, Ned Kelly, 27 Paintings by Sidney Nolan London 1964) 1.
3Brian Adams, Sidney Nolan, Such is Life (London 1987) 257.
4ibid., 258.
5Brian Kennedy, speech at the opening of The Ned Kelly Series, 1946-1947, Wellington City Art Gallery, 22 February 2002.
6Adams, Sidney Nolan, 217.
7ibid., 218
8ibid., 219
9ibid.
10See M. O’Molloy (ed.), Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Collection (Dublin 2005) 134.
11Adams, Sidney Nolan, 196
12ibid.



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