NGV Australia, Federation Square
22 Feb 08 – 18 May 08
Sidney Nolan is the first retrospective exhibition to be mounted since the artist’s death in 1992 and includes a selection of his most important masterpieces. The exhibition examines each critical period in the artist’s career and highlights the evolution of Nolan’s vision from its genesis in St Kilda during the late 1930s, to the United Kingdom half a century later when the artist finally released his passion for large-scale spraypainted abstractions.
Some of Nolan’s most famous paintings are on show, such as Moonboy 1939–40, images of the first Kelly series 1946–47, Pretty polly mine 1948, Burke and Wills leaving Melbourne 1950, The Temptation of St Anthony 1952, Rimbaud at Harar 1963, and Riverbend I 1964–65. There are also many magnificent works borrowed from private collections, estates and museums which have had rare public exposure.
The speed at which Sidney Nolan worked, and the expansiveness of his production, has always presented something of a dilemma for the retrospective defining of his genius. John Olsen once described Nolan as having a “wild eye”, by which he was able to glimpse a motif with the instantaneousness of a lens shutter, spawning a bewildering plethora of images, from ephemeral sketches to large-scale compositions, many of which have become indelible icons of 20th century Australian art.
This methodology reflected Nolan’s fascination for the velocity of 20th century culture, in particular how photography and film-making in his lifetime influenced the way Australians dealt with an identity of themselves in a world shaped by landscape, history and mythology. Hence his spectacular, highly original resolutions as a painter have often been obscured by Nolan the narrator, the storyteller, the raconteur. A presumption has evolved – most tellingly in the recent book by Tom Rosenthal – that the artist’s vision is best understood through substantial squads of work travelling along thematic pathways rather than a rigorous selection of singular compositions seen in chronological order.
Certainly over the last decade there has been an intelligent focus on particular themes, enabling us to drill into Nolan’s propensity for serial imagery; notably the exhibition based on the first Kelly series 1946–47 at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide in 1997, precursor to another based on the later Kelly works, Unmasked, which opened late last year; and the splendid Desert & Drought exhibition mounted by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003. Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery mounted a show of the Antarctica paintings in 2007 and an extensive exhibition of Nolan’s Gallipoli works at the Australian War Memorial is scheduled. These have continued, or will continue, to investigate one aspect or another of the indefatigable diversity of Nolan’s imagination.
However, four decades after Hal Missingham’s ground–breaking retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1967, and two decades after the important retrospective mounted by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1987, it is timely for another generation to see a survey of the artist’s entire career; and one with a new emphasis. It is the first since Nolan’s death in 1992, following a period that began with the sale of works from the estate five years later, during which his status has been undergoing reassessment. This retrospective, through careful selection of his most potent masterpieces,explores and aims to make more explicit his essential and enduring language.