Menzies Art Brands



One can imagine Sir Sidney Nolan, late in his career, reflecting with a wry smile and a sense of wonder as to how he had achieved the career and recognition sought by so many, but achieved by so few. The most famous, decorated and esteemed Australian artist of the century, comfortably ensconced in his beautiful Elizabethan manor house, The Rodd, on the Welsh border, would have seemed an unlikely candidate for fame and fortune. The tram drivers son, who was to be awarded the highest of all Imperial Honours, the Order of Merit, was a cocky, contrary and mercurial young man who became an artist almost in spite of his careless indifference to his own best interests. Nolan had dipped in and out of a number of art schools without leaving much of a mark, learning more from his work in a commercial art studio and wide reading in the public library, than from any teachers of note. He came of age in the Depression years of the late 1930s and managed to befriend an engaging group of intellectuals, as well as Melbournes patrons of modernism, John and Sunday Reed, who encouraged him to pursue the life of the artist. The early war years were disruptive to society as a whole, and for Nolan they brought estrangement and separation from his new wife and child as he was drawn into the vortex of the Reeds and their home.

1942 became a pivotal year for Australia, with the war that had been raging on the far side of the globe suddenly erupting at home with the Japanese raids on Darwin, Sydney and Newcastle. Nolan was drafted into the Militia Forces, then restricted to home front duties, and was posted to the remote Wimmera town of Dimboola, where he was part of the detail guarding stockpiles of food assembled in case of a Japanese invasion. While from an artistic and intellectual perspective Dimboola might have been in the middle of nowhere, for a young and inquisitive artist it produced a whole new range of challenging subject matter, which he lost no time exploring. Working with enamel paints on cheap scraps of hardboard, Nolan produced dozens of landscapes and figure studies, letting his imagination run wild while engaging in the mind-numbing duty of guarding sheds of canned baked beans. Back in Melbourne he had been making a range of small imaginative works on found materials, including slate and glass, all humorous, quirky and totally unsaleable. With the support of the Reeds he had been able to let his imagination flow, exploring a hundred different ideas, which eventually led to his creation of the Ned Kelly paintings four years later. His small abstracts and fleeting figure studies owed their inspiration to the European modernists hed seen in the exotic, and expensive, magazines hed read in the Reeds library and Gino Nibbis Leonardo Bookstore in the city. He was never one to linger over the form and drafting of a work, dashing off half a dozen at a sitting, so unlike his friend Albert Tucker (1914-1999), who laboured long and hard over every tortured composition.

Nolan was becoming ever more engrossed by the simple and significant form, epitomised by his Boy and the Moon, the stark ball on stick that so enraged conservative visitors to the Contemporary Art Society exhibition of 1940. His Figure in Flight is barely more complex than the Moon boy, a female figure rising from the ground, flapping arms representing by an extra pair of limbs, as the smiling face surprises the anguished head at her side. As a surrealist motif it might be seen to presage the tortured female figures of Albert Tuckers Images of Modern Evil, created over the following three years. A simply sketched landscape might easily be Dimboola, or indeed any place of the imagination; the colour subtle but intense, with the paint dry-brushed across the hessian support. In itself the work is a brief and fleeting moment, one small image that would contribute to the vast avalanche that would become the lifes work of Australias most productive and original artist.

Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA MPhil


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