Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise. Canberra Museum and Gallery. Until October 22, 2022. cmag.com.au.
The daunting task facing any curator of a Sidney Nolan exhibition is not so much what to include, but what to leave out. Nolan (1917-1992) was ridiculously prolific throughout his life and from about 1940 to 1992 produced about 35,000 paintings - not to mention many thousands of drawings, prints, stage set designs and three-dimensional pieces.
This exhibition, first presented at the Heide Museum of Modern Art and curated by Kendrah Morgan and Nancy Underhill, approaches Nolan's oeuvre thematically - as a search for paradise. The English poet John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) provides us with one clue for Nolan's idea of paradise. Milton wrote, "A mind not to be changed by place or time. The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n."
Nolan throughout his life sought refuge in his "created paradise", whether this be the St Kilda of his childhood, the romance and ultimately toxic environment of Heide and the Reeds, or his travels throughout the world, including Africa and Antarctica, or the Rodd Estate in the Welsh Marches where he spent much of his later life. Ultimately, in each place, the mind dictated the nature of paradise.
It is a delicious exhibition (although we are not seeing everything in the original Heide show) where some of the very famous Nolan paintings are presented within a new context. Nolan was an experimental artist in terms of mediums and imagery - unconventional and ill-equipped to attempt conventional art. Some of it was stunning and brilliant and leaves you with a tingling sensation, much of his output was completely forgettable. Nolan produced more duds than any major Australian artist - thank God, we judge an artist only by their best work. At his best, Nolan was brilliant.
If you walk into this exhibition and pretend that you have not seen much of this work before, it will take you more than a moment to realise that you are dealing with the work of the same artist. There is an awkwardness in some pieces and, at the same time, works that seem too easy and too free in their execution. The early St Kilda paintings have a naive simplicity and are effective in their striking design. The early Kelly paintings, other than suffering from overfamiliarity, are lyrical and burn into your memory.
Nolan's obsession with Australia's most enigmatic poet, Ern Malley, is interesting. The much-reproduced Arabian Tree, 1943, appeared on the cover of the issue of Angry Penguins that published for the first time Malley's anthology The Darkening Ecliptic. The lovers in the tree may refer to Nolan and his mistress Sunday Reed or simply illustrate the poem quite literally. The portrait of Malley that Nolan painted 30 years later, long after the literary hoax was exposed, demonstrates that he was still convinced that the myth had become greater than its creators.
Nolan's paradise took many forms - the amazing Antarctica painting of 1964, the image of central Australia of 1950 or his fanciful thought adventure of Eliza Fraser on Fraser Island (K'gari) in 1947. The curators have brought together a cross-section of some of Nolan's best work, drawing on numerous private and public collections. Their quest they have documented in a scholarly, but elegantly produced monographic catalogue that accompanies this exhibition.
At the moment, if you want to see Nolan at his best you need to come to Canberra. Apart from this show, CMAG has the Nolan Kelly series and the Inferno exhibition, the NGA has the Heide Kelly series and the Drill Hall Gallery has on display the immersive experience of Nolan's Riverbend.
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