Nolan on Nolan :Sidney Nolan in his own words
Edited by Nancy Underhill
Penguin/Viking, $69.95rrp, 472pp.

This miscellany is divided into four parts of seesawing worth: first, ‘Notebooks and Diaries’; secondly, ‘Letters’; thirdly, ‘Public Statements’; and fourthly, ‘Poems’. A reviewer has a pair of disconnected tasks: one, to consider what these literary materials add to our understanding of Nolan as a visual artist, and, two, to report the quality of Underhill’s editing.

No issue recurs more often, or with finer grades, than what it meant for Nolan to be an Australian, an Australian artist and an expatriate when that term was coming into its own as aesthetic equivalent of scab. Nolan’s market was back here. He might flit about Antarctica , Africa and China , but he had to keep his eye on the Australian light and lucre. After 1948, he painted Australian subjects in his English studio but had realised, by 1985, how

[o]ne’s mental apparatus is in a way separate from one’s visual apparatus and no matter how much you wish to paint an Australian landscape in England unless you have been there a short time before you would not be able to do it.

He concluded: ‘I’ve never had any problems seeing myself as an Australian, despite spending half my life away from it’. Should that ‘despite’ have been ‘because of’?

Nolan exemplified the experience of de-dominisation before chatter about Post-Colonialism drowned out the tensions specific to the Austral-Briton. His memory of the warmth of his early reception in London stands against Bernard Smith’s suspicion that Kenneth Clark welcomed the Australians because their rawness confirmed England as the civilised centre against the primitives from the bush. Nolan encountered the promise around the 1951 Festival of Britain followed by editorials about a New Elizabethan Age at the 1953 coronation when the re-jigged Empire-Commonwealth expected its black, white and brown subjects to become co-workers in a revival of British arts, as Paris had expected from its gens de couleur across two centuries. Nolan’s ease with Princess Margaret of Hesse , the knighthood and the Order of Merit were marks of absorption into English liberalism. Resident down under, dare he become ‘Sir Sid’?

A remark of D H Lawrence’s about being frightened by Australia provoked a reflection: ‘It frightens all of us. It frightened Streeton into sterility. Roberts into a passive middle age. Furphy into an insular pride. And so on. But generally the end result is silence of one sort or another’. Did Nolan to keep on talking – and painting – to fill that silence? A gift of the gab did not deny a literary intelligence with keen perceptions and depth of reading.

The land did not frighten him as much as did the social life of Melbourne , which he saw as a ‘badly written Kafka’ with its brutality and ‘cold stupidity’: ‘I will have to paint a novel, the only way I can deal with the thirties and forties in Melbourne . All this runs the risk of megalomania but I cannot forget the ruined lives’. In like vein, he reacted against Manning Clark’s calling Patrick White a ‘Great Australian’: ‘Everyone is a great Australian, the problem is to find a minor Australian. Sixteen million “experts”, such is our population’.

Myth-making about himself as well as Australia through Kelly, Burke and Wills, Mrs Fraser and the Anzacs, Nolan projects the futility of his family’s five years of clearing a farm block into the social strata who, some thirty years before, had been Kelly sympathisers. The Legend was genealogy. In talking about his Gallipoli series, he convinces one interviewer that he had been a warrior, perhaps persuading himself in the process. Yet he does not miss a beat when Peter Fuller flings his technical desertion into an interview. Being the first Anzac ashore, or going AWOL, it is all one to Nolan. Not everyone agreed, and the RSL resisted admitting his Anzac series into the War Memorial. That’s where a knighthood comes in handy.

The fifty pages of poems display a wicked wit and several striking phrases but few would have been published had their author not been a famous painter, and their reappearance does no service to prosody or to Nolan’s reputation. All are attenuated, cascading down the almost blank sheets in lines short enough to catch his inability to carry an idea, as became truer and sadder about the paintings. Nolan’s verse recalls the young poet in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night who compares himself with a hobo bumming a cigarette: ‘I don’t have the makings, just the habit’.

By juxtaposing brief extracts, Underhill has enlivened his pronouncements which are duller than his letters but nothing he wrote was as worthy as everything of John Reed’s, although Nolan’s comments on politics during Reed’s preparing in 1946 to publish a monthly, Tomorrow, come close to the ponderous. ‘A Guest of Honour’ talk in 1964 is restrained but more than usually focused. By far the most engaging piece is a 1990 interview from Aldeburgh on Britten - read this, if nothing else. The documents are a pudding for scholars in several corners of the Humanities with throwaways on Patrick White, the failed plan to produce Wagner’s Ring in Melbourne, and his dismissal of Abstract Expressionism as funerary décor, revealing an Antipodean in spirit if not a signatory to their Manifesto. Is he joking about the Kelly mask as a Malevich black square on horseback? The actual mask was cylindrical but Nolan had problems depicting three dimensions in two. Other sources for that box were buildings with windows around St Kilda and Dimboola.

The editing
The brief and sparse notes at the bottom of a few pages mix the informative, the tantalising and the embarrassing. The footnote to the 1954 documentary, Back of Beyond, should have included a clue as to its subject matter. Identifying Kierkegaard as a ‘proto-existentialist’, Heidegger as an ‘existentialist’ ‘concerned with issues of Being’, and JMW Turner as the ‘much admired romantic’ is better left unsaid.

The use of ‘(sic)’ bedevils academic writing as scholars strive for exact transcription and grammatical perfection. An introductory statement that obvious misspellings and slips have been corrected, or left standing, is preferable to the ungainliness of parenthetical intrusions such as ‘its [sic]’ for Nolan’s ‘it’s’. At least, Underhill does not resort to ‘sic’ to assert moral or political superiority to her subject. However, there are occasions when a (sic) might have been used, such as Barbara Baynton’s novel, Human Toll, not ‘Tool’; and the musician Deryk Cooke, not Corke.

The index is extensive yet includes no primary entry for film or Ripolin, two media significant for Nolan’s creativity. He involved himself in film-making while movie-going influenced his visual perceptions. In a show of his visual omnivorousness, he dissects their subjects and their mechanisms, comparing Mad Max III and Razorback with his outback canvases. Ripolin’s three mentions deserve a lead entry and sub-entries under ‘colour’, ‘paint’ and ‘materials’. How much less impact would the first Kelly series carry had it been brushed from Windsor and Newtown and not enamel?

The fifty-two colour illustrations across thirteen pages are tiny, as if on a website, but not always as crisp.

A spat between Nolan’s step-daughter and his widow means that primary materials are held to ransom. Hence, Nolan on Nolan needs to be supplemented by Bert & Ned, The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan (2006). Underhill edited the John Reed letters in 2001 and is now working towards a biography of Nolan. Studies, in print or in train, of Albert Tucker, Manning Clark and Patrick White, will triangulate her subject. Her 1991 study of Sydney Ure Smith guarantees that she will take us beyond the silences and fibs in Nolan’s self-promotions. For instance, what did Nolan mean when he said that the first Kelly paintings were an objective correlative to his emotional state, a scandal with which he often teased interviewers but swore never to discuss? The other veil for Underhill to tear aside is the one through which Nolan became known but to which he never alluded: his PR agents.