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Why have we forgotten about Sidney Nolan?

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During the latter half of the 20th Century, Sidney Nolan was one of Australia’s best-known artists. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Francis Bacon and Benjamin Britten, and his work has since been described as experimental, audacious, and as having huge cultural significance both in Australia and here in the Midlands.  

So why does no one remember him? Culture vultures, art graduates, and students alike are quick to cite figureheads of the 20th Century art such as Picasso, but fail to mention Nolan in the same vein when, in actual fact, his work is just as important.

Anthony Plant, director of the Sidney Nolan Trust, said: “We are trying to put him back where we feel that he belongs… All the galleries we talk to, the Royal Academy, Pallant House, they say, ‘Yes, Nolan!’ People say, ‘Why isn’t this guy being exhibited all the time?’ We’ve been pushing at an open door, really. He was, no doubt, a genius and it is about allowing a new generation to see that.”

2017 marks the centenary since Nolan’s birth. Therefore, the Sidney Nolan Trust are exhibiting his works across the UK and in Australia, in spaces such as the British Museum. A group of his paintings are being shown at IKON in Birmingham, which displays some of his best and most memorable portraits.

The IKON exhibition includes a series made in 1982; these portraits depict people he had a strong personal connection with, such as fellow artists Francis Bacon and Benjamin Britten, as well as his brother, who unfortunately died during the Second World War. 

Later works, dating from 1987, feature Aboriginal subjects. Nolan attempted to capture Australia’s cultural identity and the conflict between the indigenous population and European colonialists.

Interestingly, Nolan was working during the rise of postmodernism. Whilst many artists were working to deconstruct perceived narratives and were suspicious of modernism’s claims to objective truth, Nolan stuck religiously to his expressionistic style. He went against the grain – and his work is all the better for it.

In the words of Jonathan Watkins, Director of IKON, “The portraits made mainly with spray paint on canvas, exemplify the unflagging inventiveness of Nolan. Large and stylistically very free, they are like spontaneous breathings of colour, artistic conspiracies that conjure up likeness mainly of people staring wide-eyes out of their pictorial space – European and Aboriginal. Like ghosts wanting to make contact, they seem to interrogate us, spectrally, with their gaze.”

This is an excellent description: the figures themselves are ethereal and blurred. However, they are anchored into the paintings by muscular features such as hands that appear skeletal, or in other cases by vibrant neon colours that contrast with the murky gaze of the subjects. Many appear to be drowning, warped by refracted light that has filtered through water.  

There is variation in Nolan’s style between the different collections – earlier portraits with those he loved are more defined, whereas those of the Aborigines are given weight by their surroundings – but the exhibition does, at times, feel a little samey. It would’ve been nice to see some of his landscapes, or the series of paintings inspired by the life of outlaw Ned Kelly, which catapulted him into the limelight. An exhibition that relies solely on his portraits doesn’t capture the essence of him as an artist and therefore feels incomplete.

Nonetheless, IKON’s exhibition is an excellent starting point for those who want an introduction to Sidney Nolan. He has, like the hazy figures he painted, become lost in the milieu of late 20th Century art, particularly in his reluctance to embrace postmodernism. It’s time to bring him into focus once again.

Visit the IKON page for Sidney Nolan, here

To find out more about the Sindey Nolan Trust, visit there website, here

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