Sidney Nolan: Drought Skeleton (Carcass) 1953
Interview Barry Pearce

Barry Pearce
A Journey with Sidney Nolan by Barry Pearce, former Head Curator of Australian Art, Art Gallery of NSW

I have lost all idea how it began precisely. I just know it wasn’t with a Kelly painting. Nolan was not even a household name. Not in our house.  No artist was, except Albrecht Durer, who was a German with long curly hair. Don’t ask why, that’s another dream. Adelaide. Mid 1950s. I knew nothing. Just a sort of happy, isolated impoverishment. Across the flat plain of houses and paddocks a purple mass of hills. Vault of sky. Saturday nights the silver screen of Kilkenny Odeon.

The city. Through the great columns, beneath the high ceiling, the gallery was better than a cathedral. The paintings were magic, but they had no authors. Somehow they went with the music and marching outside for the Christmas Pageant along North Terrace. But they were real. They didn’t come from books.

I think it was that brown-ochre image of deserted buildings with a strange skeleton like a bicycle seat that set me off. A joke against Picasso I later discovered. Thin, rubbed-back oil; haunted, with a soft, palpable hiss of wind as in a shell you might find on a beach. I must have been about ten, maybe twelve years old.

Then MacDonnell Ranges, with its sensuous kiss of the horizon by a red mountain peak painfully shaved across its upper edge by a glossy slab of sky. One’s fingertips winced. A Saturday morning art instructor traced the contour of that peak with the wing of her glasses saying the shapes were both flat and very deep in space and how clever.

I had no idea about such a contradictory notion. But later I realised what she meant. I saw that same sky from the top of St Mary’s Peak in Wilpena Pound where two ancient serpents had chased each other in a circle and lain down to die. The air of that sublime red space was so clear it felt as if it had been sucked away, and we stood staring at the planet Mars. But in the picture the tiny flicks of vegetation tingled like triangles in a brass band. You held your breath. Who was this painter? I had no idea.

Fifty years later I find myself organising a new retrospective of his work and it seems an impossible leap of reality. I would trade all the scholarly accumulation around Nolan for one more flashing glimpse of that formative awakening before I knew who he was, or how he did what he did. Now, what is new? Has there ever been an Australian artist so prolific, so honoured with retrospectives, books, films; so exposed, interviewed and analysed?

Who else has come remotely near that extraordinary life? St Kilda tram-driver’s son growing up between the wars, intense childhood memories of his Irish ancestry in the Goulburn valley, his grandfather’s hard life on the land, and stories of the police pursuit of the Ned Kelly gang. Poet, painter, bike-rider. The dream of Paris shattered by war. The leap into a realm of contemporary art with John and Sunday Reed at Heide, stimulated and sexually charged beyond his wildest imagination, but which led to suffocation and a life-long bruising. His escape to Queensland in 1947, Army deserter, followed by six crucial years in Sydney where he was discovered by Kenneth Clark, ready to dazzle the international scene with his paintings of Australian life and landscape: Kelly, Mrs Fraser, Burke and Wills; and then go on to triangulate the planet. His permanent departure to Europe with his new wife Cynthia in 1953, settling in Britain, taking the world in his stride, hailed as one of the most prodigious, original painters of his time. Friendships and collaborations with of some of the greatest poets, writers, musicians, composers and theatrical luminaries of the late 20th century. And finally, his last happy years in Herefordshire with Mary (nee Boyd), witnessing the spectacular arc of his spray-painted impressions of China and Australia that connected him back to his beginnings. 

To whom can he be compared? Albert Tucker? Not really. For Tucker there were too many years of terrible, undeserved neglect. Nolan’s brother-in-law Arthur Boyd maybe. But Boyd was largely mute before the mysteries of his darker vision; and in the end, many of his last paintings were no longer emanating from an inner crucible. His necessity had changed in older age. His sleepless nights continued, but he had long sewn up and left behind the reparation of his soul through painting at Bundanon.

With Nolan, there was much, much more to take on with this retrospective. Firstly an almost theological belief in the process of painting whose very velocity put the result at risk. Secondly, and in close parallel, an intellectual capacity that was daunting and not to be denied. Far from mute, he was formidably articulate, cared little for art history, and painted at such ferocious speed so many thousands of pictures in which he occasionally struck – perhaps one in twenty, or a hundred pending how generous one wants to be – that sweet spot we call a masterpiece. All the rest were really only the desperate, static airwaves of an eternal becoming described well by Spengler (and read carefully by Nolan) in his famous text in 1918 The decline of the West. As Nolan fell back on his bed to die in London in 1992, it was like part of an ongoing transformation. For he never ceased to project his being forward to a new beginning. Even to the last moment, there was more to be done: a painting, a mural, a poem, some new theatrical conception.

So how was one to proceed? The answer was confirmed in a tiny book delivered to my doorstep a few months ago, bought for about $28 on the Internet. There had only been one available copy before, at the State Library. Now I wanted it for myself as a memento of a difficult journey, and found it with a book agent in Bendigo. It had been on a reading list at Melbourne University that Nolan was devouring in adolescence, one of many texts he absorbed at a rate to put many students to shame.

This particular volume was written on the poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1930 by a remarkable Melbourne academic named A. R. Chisholm, who taught French there and was to become its Professor of French studies. Chisholm later edited, with J. J. Quinn, the poetry and prose of Christopher Brennan, another great Australian classical scholar. Brennan himself wrote an essay on Rimbaud in 1899, which must be one of the earliest appreciations by an Australian of that dangerous, incandescent being who put himself through hell to find heaven. When Nolan discovered Rimbaud with the help of his friend Howard Matthews, everything changed forever, and it wasn’t just the image of a mythic, Ned Kelly-like rebel that flung him out of the suburban life of a tram-driver’s son in St Kilda to become the painter we know.

Of all the philosophers and poets Nolan read – Spengler, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Rilke, Blake, and countless others – it was Rimbaud’s hallucinatory vision aiming to touch a metaphysical realm parallel to daily life that became his clarion call, imbedded in the artist’s deepest core like a brilliantly articulated score-sheet. And it was through Chisholm that Nolan learnt of Rimbaud’s dream of penetrating with his poetry into the non-plastic realm of music. Nolan carried this dream of somehow coalescing a mental life of painting, poetry, music and theatre (ballet and opera) in an ongoing state of Gesamkunstwerk ever since hearing Benjamin Britten’s music set to Rimbaud’s Illuminations in Melbourne in 1947. He described it as a bell in his head that eventually led him to settle permanently in Britain.

None of this is easy to grasp, and of course it must not impede our pure response to the very direct clarity of Nolan’s finest work. However to steep oneself in Rimbaud, is to read Nolan’s painting in an entirely new way; to see that the process of living and working at speed, and submitting himself compulsively to the day, was the source of his true Paradise, rather than a later destination in the Christian or Islamic sense. Energy was divine, it was now, and you had to run with the vibrancy and flux of it.

What was it that set Nolan up for this kind of thinking? Was there some tuning fork long implanted in his childhood? In that wonderful but little seen ABCTV film This dreaming, spinning thing, which appears to have had only one brief public airing late on a Sunday night way back in 1970, Nolan reflected on being on parade at school and a sense of difference in his way of perceiving the world:

...The clouds are going past and the tower looks as though it’s going to fall on you, and the sky is sort of streaming with atoms or electrons or something…but increasingly as it went on I became more interested in this streaming and the feeling that while you were standing there looking at the sky…that something was rushing through you at an enormous rate, and that this was forming you, and giving you all your real messages, and that your schooling and the winning or losing…and all that kind of thing was a kind of mirror image, in many ways a distorted image, of the reality which was behind you at the back of your head.

Nolan was aware of a fierce will power that he could remember from childhood, a compulsiveness that was reinforced when he came to read Kierkegaard. Whilst they were living in America during the late 1950s, he told his wife Cynthia how it could transmute into productive anger. For example, when he asked an uncle to lend him some money to put on his first solo exhibition at his studio in Melbourne in 1940, he found the rebuttal so unjust it inspired a fury of work.

Similarly, in 1947 as he was leaving Heide, Sunday Reed declared he didn’t have the joie de vivre to paint without her, which he claimed spurred that cornucopia of paintings out of Queensland to prove a point. ‘I painted for years on that’, he said. A negative critique, a disapproving remark from a friend: these were enough to set his energy levels racing. No matter how negative, he fed it into the machine of his imagination and made it work for him. He knew how to put the screws on his own psyche and create an explosion of paintings.

I must admit I found this aggressive mentality surprising, given that on the few occasions I met Nolan, and from all the interviews and writings, I had formed the picture of an utterly charming, urbane person existing happily above the range of sticks and stones. How ruthless and how naïve was he? One of his miracles is surely that in spite of his supreme intelligence and verbal mastery, he was able to preserve a truly fresh and instinctive imagery. Even amongst a lot of bad stuff in later years he was quite capable of annihilating all one’s apprehensions with a fantastic sense of exhilaration.

But for me the key to this particular retrospective is Rimbaud, the essence of a powerful lyrical impulse that was more important to the formal development of Nolan’s language than any particular myth or legend. Nolan played out the colonial stories to perfection, and knew full well that a feathered Gallipoli hat was all it took to elicit an exaggerated national significance; or a black Kelly helmet to assuage the fear of an empty landscape.

Yet at the end of the day, he didn’t want to be remembered as an anecdotal artist. It was rather for those flashpoints of painterly inspiration, seen in an instant, driven from beneath the skin by an impulse of poetic and musical mystery which none of us, Nolan included, could quite explain. He wanted to be remembered, he told Sallie Begbie in 1992, as an artist who made paintings and didn’t quite know how they were done.

Suffice to quote one passage by Rimbaud:

For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its fault…I am present at this birth of my thought: I watch it and I listen to it: I draw a stroke of the bow: the symphony makes its stir, or comes on to the stage in a leap.

An amazing life, and an amazing legacy of genius that, for all its gargantuan ambition, could never quite know itself.