Rarely does one have the opportunity to see a body of little known and seldom exhibited works originating in a brief, discrete, yet significant period in the early career of an artist as famed as Sidney Nolan, probably the best known Australian painter of the twentieth century. We who love: the Nolan slates at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, and before that at University of Queensland Art Museum, gives such an opportunity.
Apart from what it may tell us about Nolan, indeed even should one not care a jot about him, this exhibition presents as a sumptuous visual experience on which the eye, whether Nolan-attuned or not, can feast.
In a six month period from late 1941 to June 1942 Nolan painted images on at least 25 discarded roofing slates he ‘acquired’ from a building near his studio in Russell Street, Melbourne. The paintings brim with a variety of luscious motifs, variously repeated in the works: hands, feet, flowers, lovers, boats, birds, and most emblematically, angels. During this same period, from mid 1941, he also painted more than a dozen canvasses incorporating the same imagery in luminous out-of-the-real-world colour.
The slates remained in Sunday Reed’s possession until reluctantly she returned them to Nolan in 1970. UQAM acquired nineteen slates from Nolan in 1977 and this exhibition includes these and another five, displaying in total 33 images with nine verso images presented digitally in 3-dimension. The slates are perfectly complimented by twelve significant and similarly themed canvasses, and another five small earlier pieces which inform the subsequent body of work.
The catalogue itself is a delight. Hard covered in double landscape format with faithful colour reproductions and an attractive layout, it includes two excellent essays by curator Dr Chris McAuliffe and by Nolan’s biographer Dr Nancy Underhill (who as Director of UQAM acquired the slates from Nolan). At $40 the catalogue should walk off the shelves. Get your copy early.
McAuliffe’s essay Like phantoms in fate-laden dimness is a masterly effort setting out Nolan’s circumstances at the time of these works, discussing the literary and art sources that influenced him in their execution, linking them and their dominant motifs to day-to-day living and loving at Heide, and tracing these motifs into his future corpus of work.
It tells how Nolan’s first marriage was little more than two years old and virtually at an end when his daughter was born in January 1941. He and Elizabeth Paterson had married not long after he first met the Reeds and began visiting Heide. For most of 1939 the newly-weds lived away from Melbourne at Ocean Grove where the Reeds were frequent visitors, and even during this first year Nolan and Sunday were showing signs of physical as well as intellectual attraction. When his wife Elizabeth returned to her parent’s home after the confinement, Nolan began living at Heide while attempting unsuccessfully to restore his marriage. In the lead up to Easter in April 1941, he undertook a solo bicycle ride in Tasmania to think things through, but returned to a letter from Elizabeth telling him the marriage was definitely finished. He made further attempts at reconciliation but when these proved fruitless, he moved in at Heide on a permanent basis most likely in June 1941.
When he began painting these works his world must have been full of emotional turmoil as he juggled his ambition with his responsibilities, and attempted to balance irreconcilable loves for a wife, a lover and a daughter he had hardly seen. Then on 7 December 1941 came the attack on Pearl Harbour and with the war in the Pacific soon in full swing, the future indeed looked bleak.
Against this personal background McAuliffe examines the slate imagery through Blakean, Rilkean and other literary influences including Chaucer and Proust; through the influence of other painters such as Blake, Picasso, Chagall and Rouault in Nolan’s drive to espouse a European modernism; and as informed by the panoply of happenings at Heide such as lovers’ tiffs, fits of pique and ceremonial gifts. He lays their genesis squarely on Nolan’s feelings for Sunday Reed. The sequence of paintings, he says, “charts the full flowering of Nolan and Sunday’s love affair, accompanied by mingled feelings of guilt and exhilaration”; and that “Nolan dedicated the slates to an almost elegiac examination of his relationship with Sunday.”1
The paintings and slates certainly provide a compelling visual spectacle, but equally, if to be understood and appreciated at greater depth, an informed exposition can only be of benefit. This is no easy task and whilst McAuliffe’s analysis can be penetrating, it is also given to the odd flight of curatorial fancy. Of Tree and bird (second of the five illustrations above) we learn that “If the tree represents estatic, secretive love, the little bird suggests associated emotional traumas. The little bird is Nolan, huddled at the feet of his lover and patron Sunday;” and of Bird and Angel (illustrated below), he says “perched upon the prone woman, the robin-like bird is the nervously solicitous Nolan, always concerned, as his letters show, with the fragility of Sunday’s ‘nerves’ and conscious of her propensity for staging emotional crises demanding penance and ritual reconciliation.”2
But then many of us indulge our own ornithological flights of fancy about Nolan – perhaps unsurprising given his pet name ‘Robin red-breast’ and the alias ‘Robin Murray’ used when AWOL from military service. I have written how he placed a visual signature, a striking sunlit little robin red-breast sitting on a fence post in the Kelly painting Quilting the armour – of which he is supposed to have claimed it depicted the only woman he ever really loved.
Seeking and attributing sources for themes and motifs in the work of artists like Nolan is not without its difficulties. Apart from that characteristic he describes of himself – which Underhill quotes in her essay here as well as in her Nolan biography – as being “a lurking larrikin on standby,” Nolan had a veritable cornucopia of eidetic images stored in his memory from whence they would emerge time and again when catalysed by an event, by music, by a literary allusion, by who knows what stimuli. Michael Keon quotes Albert Tucker describing this phenomenon of Nolan’s: “when Sunday applied the pressure to him, he was able – because it seemed normal to him – to work through this eidetic imagery. Which gave him a tremendous perceptual advantage in that he was able to – he knew speed was the essence – move with terrific speed and get that first microsecond glance, that eidetic image, and this is why the result has got that peculiar immediacy and freshness.”3
It all makes for quite fascinating reading and viewing – an ‘intriguing’ analysis according to Nancy Underhill,4 and indeed it is, continuing to examine how the motifs common to many of the works permeate Nolan’s oeuvre over the years. One example included in the exhibition is Nolan’s 1943 painting Arabian Tree that adorns the cover of the Angry Penguins edition in which was published the hoax poetry of Ern Malley.
Nolan spoke of this work in an interview not long before he died and quoted from a Malley poem the words he wrote on the painting : “I said to my love (who is living) … dear, we shall never be that verb perched on the sole Arabian Tree.” He continued: “… well, that was my life and I took it in the Shakespearian sense that that was my destiny that I would never … [very long pause] … and of course that was the case with Sunday also, she knew that we would never .. [long pause] .. never be that bird perched in the sole Arabian tree… we both thought it .. [pause] .. but that’s not much fun. So the poem was very much to do with our own lives .. [pause] .. and seeing that this had a tragic outcome, ….”5
McAuliffe mentions that a little sketch in a letter from Nolan to Sunday, written in 1941 during his bike ride in Tasmania, was the first appearance of the device of lovers in a tree, as seen above in Arabian tree. He sources it to Chaucer’s “The merchant’s tale” and notes it was used by Nolan to portray his relationship with Sunday Reed. Another likely source is Chagall’s painting “Lilac above the river” seen below, almost certainly known to Nolan from its inclusion in the 1933 edition of Herbert Read’s Art Now, a copy of which was in the library at Heide.6 This very copy, with Sunday’s signature on the inside cover, I located in a second-hand bookshop and returned it to the Heide library in 2007 when co-curating Ern Malley: the hoax and beyond.
The catalogue essay reveals a number of facts and observations which I believe to be published here for the first time. One such is the chalk message “Goodbye my darlings. 1970” together with 19 kiss-crosses and a drawing of a pendant watch, written on the verso of one of the slates by Sunday Reed when she eventually returned the slates to Nolan in 1970.
McAuliffe links this to her giving him her watch to take to Tasmania and his letter saying “the watch swings around my neck all the time and sometimes I feel as though I have breasts.” Here was the key I had long sought to the poem “Gold watch” in Nolan’s Paradise garden, his book of vituperous and denigrating verses and drawings, executed thirty years on, about his life at Heide.7
Some time ago Dr Betty Snowden, who is writing a biography of Max Harris, asked me what were my thoughts about Nolan’s painting Woman and tree which Harris, as editor of Angry Penguins, reproduced in black and white in the second edition of the magazine in August 1941. The first reproduction in print of a painting by Nolan, it is a centrepiece of the canvasses included here. My research led me to look at many of the works now seen in this exhibition, including the slates, and led to the post you, Lady, are the Tree: Nolan’s annunciation.
On reflection I’m glad it was posted ahead of the exhibition and before I read Chris McAuliffe’s essay. Had I waited, faced with the breadth and depth of his analysis, I would have been somewhat tentative about airing my contrary view that although the works were all undoubtedly executed when Nolan was completely in the thrall of Sunday Reed during the early heady days of the ménage à trois at Heide, it was his first wife Elizabeth and not Sunday who was the primary inspiration for Woman and tree and for the related works which quickly followed, including the slates.
On looking closely at my thesis again, I’m still convinced it remains a valid, if perhaps slightly less plausible, alternative to the conventional wisdom.
Whatever may have inspired their creation, there can be little doubt, to borrow McAuliffe’s words, that the slates “are deeply personal. Steeped in poetic melancholy, punctuated by joy and pain, Nolan’s paintings emerged, as John Reed put it, from the ‘essential experience of the heart’.”8
Perhaps the most poignant image in the exhibition is this photo of Nolan taken at the second showing of the slates at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art in April 1977, thirty five years after their creation. Nolan’s ‘essential experiences of the heart’, whatever their origin, have given way to a withered, almost ravished, visage.
This was a difficult period in Nolan’s life. His health had been poor and he was drinking heavily.9 His mother Dora, to whom he was very close, had died two years earlier; his second wife Cynthia had suicided enigmatically less than six months previously – after disinherited him – a double blow since their property and many of his paintings were in her name; and then his close friend Benjamin Britten had died only a week after Cynthia’s suicide.
In the photo, taken by his friend Jack Lynn who opened the exhibition, Nolan looks bleakly into the distance from beside the beautiful slate with the image of lovers and a posy of flowers. Within the framework of the exhibition catalogue he can be imagined as looking back to its early pages and to the little catalogue from his 1943 One Man Show at which the slates were first shown.
His 1942 painting Head of a soldier stares vacantly out from its flimsy page. The hollow eyed gaze of this soldier, always Nolan himself in my opinion and never the Captain Bilby he would later aver, surveys without hope the future and the prospect, recalled by McAuliffe, that ‘there are not many more tomorrows.’10 Beyond bewilderment, those eyes and those of the painter in the later photo can be imagined meeting halfway through the book and recognising one another.
Whatever their inspiration or their conception, the emotional intensity and turmoil evident in the slates clearly remained a potent presence for Nolan – as is evident in the photo above when he sees them on an exhibition wall again after almost 35 years. And they would remain so – the majority of the canvasses stayed with him until his death in 1992.
In one of his last interviews, he reflected on the end of his affair with Sunday Reed – a relationship that one way or another informed every brushstroke in this exhibition: “She could never see the logic of why I left. I couldn’t see the logic of – well I didn’t want to go either – but I couldn’t see the logic of staying [pause] but she wanted it both ways you see, she wanted [pause] [unclear] and so did John. Everyone wanted something that was impossible, which is natural for human beings [pause] but they don’t usually get it.”11
Whatever the source and inspiration for these slates and paintings – and therein lies the intrigue and allure for me in this marvellous exhibition – they can hang on the walls secure in their own quite unique splendour.
We who love: the Nolan slates showed at University of Queensland Art Museum until 24 July 2016. The exhibition is now at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. See it there between 3 September 2016 and 2 April 2017. It should not be missed.
- Chris McAuliffe, “Like phantoms in fate-laden dimness”, in We who love: the Nolan slates, UQ Art Museum, Brisbane, 2016, pps. 13 and 18.
- Chris McAuliffe, ibid., p. 19.
- Albert Tucker, quoted by Michael Keon, Glad morning again, Imprint, Sydney, 1966, p. 254. The passage from p.253 onwards is an excellent description by another painter of this rare facility of Nolan’s. Tucker said “one thing that most people miss with Nolan …. is (that) his normal perceptual facilities were quite different to most people’s”.
- Nancy Underhill, “Thoughts on Nolan”, in We who love: the Nolan slates, UQ Art Museum, Brisbane, 2016, p. 13.
- Sidney Nolan interviewed by Michael Heyward, London, 1991.
- Herbert Read, Art Now, Faber and Faber, London, 1933, plate 34.
- Sidney Nolan, Paradise Garden, R. Alistair McAlpine Publishing, London, 1971, p. 29.
- Chris McAuliffe, “Like phantoms in fate-laden dimness”, op. cit., p. 11.
- Nancy Underhill, Sidney Nolan: a life, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2015, p. 304.
- Chris McAuliffe, “Like phantoms in fate-laden dimness”, op. cit., p. 13.
- Sidney Nolan interviewed by Michael Heyward, London, 1991.