Arguably the two greatest Australian painters of the second half of the twentieth century are united in this work by Sidney Nolan, in which he depicts fellow artist and lifelong friend Arthur Boyd (1920-1999).
Arthur Boyd at Fitzroy Falls was selected as a finalist for the Archibald Prize of 1988. As Australia’s most famous and sought-after art prize, the Archibald is no stranger to controversy. Following Nolan’s submission of the present work to the prize, a dispute arose over the validity of its inclusion. Another entrant complained that it contravened the award rules as Nolan had not resided in Australia for the twelve months prior to submitting the work. It was subsequently hung in the exhibition of finalists’ works, but not judged. This was the only time Nolan entered the Archibald Prize and given the iconic status of painter and subject, the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales were no doubt disappointed about this particular painting’s exclusion from eligibility to win the award.
Chromatically vibrant and stylistically expressive, Nolan depicts Boyd set against the backdrop of Fitzroy Falls. This location is not far from the Boyd’s much-loved property Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River in south east New South Wales. Boyd first visited the Shoalhaven, and specifically Bundanon in 1971 and was immediately captivated by the landscape. He began painting the Shoalhaven River and surrounds, which spurred significant stylistic developments in his work. Arthur and his wife Yvonne Boyd purchased Bundanon in 1979, further cementing their commitment to the area and creating a legacy that continues to live on through their subsequent bequest of Bundanon to the Australian people. Boyd’s work based on this region, including Fitzroy Falls, became synonymous with his late period and seared his vision of this particular part of Australia’s wilderness into the national consciousness.
Landscape was also an integral part of Nolan’s diverse oeuvre. His first sustained creative engagement with the Australian landscape occurred when he was stationed in Victoria’s Wimmera region during World War II. Enjoying the solitude, he moved away from his fixation with international modern art, and instead focused his attention on the terrain that surrounded him.1 He wrote, ‘I find the desire to paint the landscape involves a wish to hear more of the stories that take place in the landscape … which persist in the memory.’2 Some of Nolan’s most widely recognised paintings give visual form to such stories, namely his iconic Kelly series.
Created some forty years after Nolan’s Wimmera series, the present work reveals the visual toughness that Nolan had brought to his landscape painting by the 1980s. All sense of the picturesque has evaporated, and he takes a characteristically high vantage point looking down on the country to convey its epic proportions. The sheer drop of Fitzroy Falls appears as a white vertical against the rust and purple-hued cliff-face. While much of the landscape is painted with an amplified naturalistic colour palette, Boyd is depicted with lilac toned skin and maroon eyes set underneath a crop of striking white hair. Such expressive treatment of the figure calls to mind the Fauvists and their radical use of colour.
Nolan often drew upon narratives in his art, yet he sought to avoid the overly literal. The same could be said about this rare foray into portraiture. Rather than focusing on capturing a traditional likeness, the figure of Boyd is treated with the same broad strokes and chromatic intensity as the landscape from which it emerges.
In the present work Nolan continues to use the landscape as a way to frame a story or memory, depicting Boyd immersed in a location he loved, and likely one shared with Nolan during one of his visits to Bundanon. More so than for many artists, the particular landscape of this region became part of Boyd’s identity, and his lasting legacy. This profound relationship between artist and place is stirringly captured in this vibrant painting.
1. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, National Gallery of Victoria, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, New South Wales, 1987, p.42
2. Sidney Nolan, quoted in ‘The “Kelly” paintings by Sidney Nolan’, The Australian Artist, Vol.1, July 1948, p.20
Marguerite Brown MA ArtCur