Is Sidney Nolan a great painter? The reader of T. G. Rosenthal's excellent study of Nolan's copious art work is left in no doubt that the Australian painter is a challenging iconographer, a brilliant colourist, a resourceful innovator and a master of grand themes and panoptic visions. But a great artist? Perhaps not, if we are to consider painting as something deeper than what it represents, as a medium in which the world is remade rather than a reflector of its surface.
This has nothing to do with Nolan's being predominantly a representational painter. Indeed, he began almost as an abstractionist, and it was with developments of a speedier spray-painting technique that he returned to abstraction at the end of his life. Certainly the customary distortions of reality in his image-making retain an abstract edge. Nor is the disquiet a matter of his being international in outlook while painting almost exclusively the national. Rosenthal discusses Nolan's work chronologically under the great themes that emerged regularly throughout his career, most of them treated in numerous instances, and many returned to after their apogees, even to the extent that an ideé fixe might unexpectedly emerge in the middle of a newer obsession. Thus Ned Kelly, Mrs Fraser and even a carcass washed into a tree-fork might feature in a Gallipoli scene, a floral panel of Oceania or one of the fantasies on Leda and the Swan .
The book moves from early Nolans in wartime St Kilda and the Wimmera, through the days of first fame with the Reids at Heidi (birth of the Ned Kelly sequences), Mrs Fraser and the Convict , Central Australia, Leda and the Swan, Gallipoli, The Eureka Stockade , the flower paintings and Oceania , and sculpture, with interludes on Nolan as traveller, and Nolan and literature and theatre. Nolan returned often to Australia after leaving in 1950 and visited most parts of the continent, especially the flood plains and the desert, but lived for the greater part of a nomadic life almost anywhere in the world, finally settling, after periods in London and New York, in the Welsh Marches. I find I cannot agree with Rosenthal's conclusion that it was Nolan's uncanny instinct for iconography that led him to Australia's major myths, her heroes, villains and archetypes. Rather it seems that he shrewdly tapped into the Australian capacity for self-mythologising. Subject matter is a hard case for the modern artist, and Australia offered an unfamiliar repertory of images that Nolan was able to present to a world always ready to be startled by the exotic. His business sense was acute and he knew on which side his bread was buttered.
Nevertheless, he often worked on a grand scale and added an heroic dimension to his Australiana. Rosenthal's text is finely illustrated with coloured and black-and-white plates so that readers can make up their own minds about the success of each of Nolan's forays into myth. I am old enough to have followed, however intermittently, his progress over the years in exhibitions and publications, and to have watched his apotheosis in ever-larger retrospectives and assemblies of pictures in public buildings and galleries. In only one of his major categories do I discern pictorial greatness (admittedly this gathers together a bewilderingly large number of images) - the cornucopia of his flower paintings that comprise Paradise Garden and the colossal murals that make up Snake 1 & 2, Shark and Little Shark , collectively known as Oceania . These extensive displays are equivalent to the frescoes once assembled in the churches and palaces of the Renaissance. Composed of a multitude of smaller, intensely coloured paintings, ranging from intricate flower shapes to near-abstract forms of heads of creatures, and underlaid by the wave-like shapes of their nominative animals, these murals amount to extraordinary manifestations of multum in parvo .
Paradise Garden especially has a sexual charge unexpected in collective designs that, viewed in disenchanted mood, might suggest a dressmaker's pattern book of fabrics or a desultory visit to Marianne North's Gallery of botanical paintings in Kew Gardens. It recalls Nolan's long and claustrophobic affair with his patron Sunday Reid among the jardini re sultriness of the Reid's house at Heidi outside Melbourne. With Paradise Garden 's sensual oppression and Snake 's and Shark 's harnessing of the subliminal menace that is never far away in Australian nature, Nolan justifies his "quick-blick" method (his own word for his instant response in paint or line to any commanding image he encounters), and his tendency to over-produce. He once wrote in defence of his prodigality, citing the need to execute "hundreds of paintings: otherwise there is too much theory".
Rosenthal's exegesis is admirably clear. He eschews jargon and schematics and has a unique ability to describe paint and its effect on the viewer. He also has a firm understanding of the shifting symbolism of Australian life, so that different aspects of the Kelly paintings are shown to be full of irony and bizarrerie , as well as of icon-making. His emphasis on the Australian tendency to celebrate heroic failure helps him to illuminate Burke and Wills's doomed expedition to cross Australia from south to north, the Anzacs' defeat at Gallipoli and the miners of the Eureka Stockade, together with their modern descendants in the parched interior. He distinguishes a pronounced sardonic streak in Nolan's approach to his subjects - thus an upside-down bird of prey with oversize claws will be fitted into a piece of urban pastoral, and Ned Kelly gang member Steve Hart is shown riding side-saddle in a woman's dress and the outlaw himself head down in a wombat hole. In a similar way, his understanding of how important literary inspiration was to Nolan weaves an Ariadne thread through the labyrinth of conceptual images.
They are all here, the favourite pictures that have made Nolan a household name throughout the world, including individual paintings not part of any thematic series: the flour millers of the Wimmera, the trapped hare, the two remarkable Riverbend series, Desert Storm , Inferno , Ern Malley and Antarctica . Rosenthal proves to be an ideal guide to this often-anarchic world, a place very much in need of clear-sighted appreciation.
Peter Porter is an Australian poet who has lived in Britain since 1951. He has collaborated in four books of poems and pictures with Australian painter Arthur Boyd.
Author - T. G. Rosenthal
ISBN - 0 500 09304 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £42.00
Pages - 304