Menzies Art Brands



Sidney Nolans journey through life and art is probably the most closely documented of any Australian artist. His relationships, love affairs, friendships and enmities are painstakingly documented in a myriad books and essays. We learn that he was able to make the best of opportunities when presented, and when necessary, to create his own to carry him forward, constantly remaining in the public eye. When read at surface level, his incessant travel and search for the new and the novel was an unfurling narrative of grasping a new vision in the field and then returning to home base, whether that be in Australia or the United Kingdom, where he would work through the new imagery until inspiration was exhausted. Then it would be another journey perhaps to China, America or, at its most extreme, to Antarctica, to where he flew in 1964.

While travel was opening up for many in the 1960s, we tend to overlook just how Nolan was able to make all these journeys, many of them costly and difficult enterprises. Air travel was still an expensive undertaking, especially to more remote places, like his trip to China in 1965. The answer of course came in his capacity to attract significant support and sponsorship from government, philanthropic and private sponsorship. An Italian Government Scholarship funded a trip to Italy in 1956, two years in the USA courtesy of a Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellowship in 1958 and an Australian National University Fellowship in the creative arts funded his return to Australia in 1965. In between, there were outback journeys and safaris to Africa, funded through a variety of sources. A generous scheme whereby his gallery would pay advances on exhibition sales, in the manner of a publishers advance to successful authors, made sure he could go where and when he chose, all the time building up a new stock of visual experiences to interpret in the free-flowing Nolan style. His speed of execution and minimalist technique meant he was able to satisfy his growing public with a steady flow of fresh new work. His approach was totally different to that of his old friend and sometime exhibiting partner Albert Tucker, who would labour over each painting for months, ever reluctant to let something out of the studio until he was either comfortable, or exhausted, by his efforts. Nolan would take a handful of sketches and drawings and convert them to an exhibition of bold and striking works, like the fifty paintings he would create after just eight days in Antarctica. The secret was his capacity to find a series of shorthand gestures whereby he could create a powerful and convincing image with a few broad sweeps of a large and heavily loaded brush, working wet in wet to build his lively surfaces and gestures.

South Seas is very much in the manner of his 1960s travel works. After painting the mountains and rivers of China and the islands of the Aegean, an image of the ocean fits comfortably, even without defining which particular location is being depicted. He takes a simple motif of the mangrove, an environment he visited often in the Convict and Mrs Fraser series, building a layered composition with a sandbar beyond and the streak of brilliant blue ocean below a cloudy sky. What separates the painting from any pedestrian depiction of the South Pacific is the subdued colour and limited tonal range, creating a calm and peaceful rendition of tidal flats and mangrove trees standing on tip-toe in the receding waters. A subtle play of light within the trees freshens the scene, while the electric blue of the ocean is kept to one slash of paint, a highlight lifting the image as a striking moment in time. Nolan always knew exactly how to create a memorable image with the minimum of means.

Gavin Fry

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