Needed Now, More Than Ever

TRANSFERENCES: SIDNEY NOLAN IN BRITAIN, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, Thursday, 16th February 2017 (until 4 Jun 2017).

At the centre of Australian cultural life, of Australian society, is a terrible darkness, a horror of destruction, the treatment of the Aborigines. Thinking about this, about the situation of Australia today, the incarceration of asylum seekers for example, it’s possible to see that art, that is how we think about the ways cultures express themselves, can be at the core, at the heart of our being.

Sidney Nolan is, in one person, an expression of this conflict between art such as that of the Aborigines, created over centuries, which belongs to everyone, and that which can be called the creation of an ‘individual genius’, which belongs, as if a commodity, to the artist. And I think he was only too aware of this conflict, of this essential paradox.

The paintings in this exhibition come from his 40 year, self-imposed exile in England, in the old country, and in a way he seems to have come here, not so much to escape the narrowness of his homeland, though I’m sure that was a consideration, but to take the fight to the source, to where it all begins.

Aborigines, before a plebiscite in 1967, were so much flora and fauna, not citizens or even people, just wards of the State. After they became people there was a general rush to find out how they could be useful, how they could be economically viable. One way was to be an artist. There had been an aboriginal artist before, Albert Namatjira painted landscapes in a European style and achieved some success, but when, in the 1970s and later, traditional art became popular, it was necessary, from a commercial point of view, to identify, to name, individual artists. Once an artist was ‘named’ they became, in complex ways, isolated from their culture. Their art was an expression of all their tribe, their whole history, not the outpouring of individual genius, but this wasn’t really easy to commodify, so named they were.

Sidney Nolan as artist, prefigured by some 20 or 30 years this exact same isolation from his culture, though in his case he was, as a European, able to exploit the possibilities and opportunities thrown up by this, in ways not available to the Aborigines.

Nolan painted, over and over again, subjects which belonged to everyone; just as did artists in traditional culture.

His artistic education was in the practical skill of applying paint of all types, but especially commercial, to all manner of surfaces, signs on delivery vans for example, or shop window displays. Culturally, he was an autodidact, and, early in his career, found himself in the clutches of a wealthy heiress, Sunday Reed formerly Baillieu (one of the richest families in Melbourne) a kind of Peggy Guggenheim of the Antipodes, keen to hook an ‘individual genius’, for her salon and, it transpires, for her bed (she was married at the time - her husband didn’t seem to mind). What this screams of is ownership; she owned this promising young artist. (Nolan was also absent without leave from the Army, this being during the Second World War, which may have somewhat limited his options for escape.)

While living with Sunday and John Reed he produced his series of paintings of Ned Kelly wearing, or becoming, his black helmet, recognisable the world over, much to the chagrin, still, of many Australians.

What he said, without any attempt to soften the blow, was: this story is yours and for the good of everyone’s health, you’d better own it.

My memory, from having been around in the 60s, 70s and 80s, even the 90s, was that this didn’t go down too well. It’s no surprise that as soon as he could (1953 actually) he left for England, and didn’t return again to live.

But this in no way suggests he’d lost the stomach for confrontation.

Before Nolan, Australian paintings were, by and large, sentimental, landscapes seen with European eyes and European expectations.

Nolan takes difficult, controversial events, Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills, Eliza Frazer, Gallipoli, stories that can be interpreted in different ways, and presents them without sentiment, clearly, honestly and with a harsh beauty.

It’s as if he’s saying look: we’ve only been here 200 years and already we have these stories we share. Aborigines have been here thousands of years, how much deeper, more complex, more meaningful their stories. Look again! Look!

White Australia’s rejection of the truth of Aboriginal art is at one with the rejection of their culture in its entirety. The vision of art as the result of individual genius, the fundamental building block of western capitalism, cannot assimilate the collaborative culture of the original inhabitants.

Sidney Nolan came to England to be ‘named’, to be stamped an individual genius, but I think his paintings, and those in this exhibition are no exception, scream ‘I am the product of my background and I refuse to be owned. I know I have been isolated from my culture but I will paint that isolation and that struggle. You will never beat me.’

When Nolan left Australia (was driven out?) the country was in the grip of extreme xenophobia (the official ‘White Australia’ policy ending as recently as 1973) and anti-communist mania (‘Reds under the beds’ got a conservative government started on a 21 year continuous reign) which the political classes seem determined on resurrecting (substituting anti-Islam for anti-communism) based on national narratives ninety nine parts fantasy if not raging opportunism. (Is this Australia’s most successful export thus far - cruelty to asylum-seekers?)

Nolan’s tough, clear-sighted paintings are an antidote to the kind of spongy, sentimental jingo-ism which was in the ascendent in his own time and, unfortunately, is flooding back into the social story again.

Nolan is needed now, more than ever.

Paul Corcoran