The Anglo-Australian School of Faux Naive Fusionism
A hundred years after what historian W.K. Hancock in 1930 termed ‘The Invasion’ of Australia by European settlers in 1788, two-thirds of the nearly three million non-Aboriginal inhabitants were Australian born. Virtually all the third million were born in Britain; at the time of federation in 1901 barely 2 per cent of white Australians were not of British stock. But the painters and artists of the late nineteenth century were far less likely to have been born in Australia or even Britain.
Enterprising American publishers spent more than £60,000 commissioning 1000 etchings for the three-volume Picturesque Atlas of Australasia that was published on the centenary of first settlement. Most of these were necessarily sketched en plein air, in which Australia abounds.
The scenes are truthful and characteristic of Australasian scenery … delineating the natural features of alpine, lake, river, and marine scenes; waterfalls, caves, sounds, hot springs, etc.; also, views of cities, towns, public buildings, botanical gardens, orange groves, vineyards, sugar plantations, cattle and sheep stations, etc., for which Australasia is so justly famous.
It is available online, and in an inexpensive reprint edition, and one can see how European are the delineations and compositions of landscapes and seascapes. The architecture of the stone buildings of the cities and major towns is completely Victorian and so are the etchings of them.
At the same time as this celebration of Victorian Australia was published, the neophyte Australian Impressionists—aka the Heidelberg School—were camping out at the end of the railway lines of Melbourne and Sydney, on the fringes of the bush, to try to capture something that the etchings hadn’t or couldn’t. Mostly trained in London or on the Continent whether Australian born or not, these artists were working to paint a light whiter than any seen in Europe north of the Mediterranean countries. It was, and still is, a sunlight that can blanch the melancholy melaleucas and gum trees to tinder, spontaneously to ignite the awesome bushfires that I remember glowering just beyond the suburban back gardens of Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s.
There was very little figurative painting in nineteenth-century Australia other than formal portraits of explorers and governors and very occasionally their wives. The first oil painting—of fish—was made in 1813. When Impressionism was introduced to Australia by the incoming European and British painters it showed a new way of painting pastorales, allowing landscape to emerge from the academically topographical depictions of the early naturalists and botanists. Bernard Smith traced this pollination process in his Australian Painting 1788–1970, concluding that the ‘great contribution’ the Impressionists made ‘to the history of vision in Australian art’ was ‘to produce, for the first time, a naturalistic interpretation of the Australian sunlit landscape’.
But the Australian Impressionists were derivative of their European mentors, whose schools they regularly crossed oceans to attend. Smith gives almost a ship’s manifest in tracing the acceleration of what he called the Exodus in the decades after the Australian states were federated in 1901 (and Queen Victoria died). He concluded tartly that ‘It was in the Chelsea Arts Club that the Heidelberg School established its last and least distinguished camp.’
Before Australian figurative art was stimulated by the imagery of war and rout at Gallipoli, there was a loss of resolution, a regression, in the work of Hans Heysen and Frederick McCubbin. In the 1950s, faded government-issue prints of these somehow saccharine landscapes and narratives of the girl lost in the bush or loggers opening up new country were hung on state school walls. They used to worry me even then. Where were the ferocious bull ants and their hot stings? Where were the venemous snakes? It was drummed into us that nobody should sit on a log for very long in the bush, or indeed in the backyard, for fear of being bitten by something. Even going to the outside lean-to dunny you had to take a stick and beat it along the path to chase off the snakes, then rattle it round the wooden toilet bench to evict the spiders before you sat down. Best, actually, not to sit down unless you absolutely had to. As Hancock wrote in 1930, ‘In Heysen’s country there is no wilderness; the Bush is a graceful frame for intimate and civilised landscapes.’
The responses of the London critics to the National Gallery’s exhibition last year of Australian Impressionism reflected their ambivalence to the derivativeness of the 41 examples, a quarter of which are of European scenes. Was John Russell an acolyte French Impressionist serving an apprenticeship in Antibes or an Australian Impressionist? Does the decade Charles Condor spent in Australia qualify him as an Australian painter? His A Holiday at Mentone (where I went to school and swam in the lee of the stumps of the pier that had been blown up by larrikins playing with army gelignite) could as well be of Menton. As I was leaving the National Gallery exhibition, I passed several Corots. Some of his trees are the silver grey and sage of the tea-tree and the gum tree.
The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is itself a Victorian institution and has only recently begun to show paintings made after 1901. It has announced a brave new policy of ‘seeking to represent paintings in the Western European tradition, rather than solely those made by artists working in Western Europe’. This exhibition is an early fruit of that decision. We remember a former director, Kenneth Clark, limited his discussions of Civilisation similarly to western Europe without consideration of the art made in the diaspora. Yet he was a great admirer of the work of Sidney Nolan and collaborated with the young Turk of the London gallery scene in the 1950s and 1960s, Bryan Robertson, to promote the Australian artists who made the pilgrimage home 50 years after the Australian Impressionists.
Sir Kenneth Clark visited Sydney briefly at the end of 1948 and wrote in 1977: ‘Sydney was full of talented young painters, but the public galleries were Augean stables; I expect they will have been cleaned up by now, and it must have been a Herculean task.’ He was taken to an exhibition of contemporary landscape painting ‘and it was sad to see how the excellent Australian landscape painters of the late nineteenth-century had exhausted the genre’.
But as he was leaving, ‘I noticed, hung high up above the entrance stairs, a work of remarkable originality and painter-like qualities’ by one Sidney Nolan. He immediately took a taxi to Nolan’s address in the Sydney suburbs ‘and found the painter dressed in khaki shorts, at work on a series of large paintings of imaginary birds. He seemed to me an entirely original artist, and incidentally a fascinating human being.’ Clark ‘was confident I had stumbled on a genius’. (Professor Joseph Burke later reminded Clark, in a letter now in the Tate Archives in London, that he had sent Clark to see Nolan in Sydney.) Where did he come from? From a few paddocks away from where the Heidelberg School frequently painted, on the banks of the Yarra less than 15 kilometres from Melbourne’s central business district.
Australian modernism could be said to have been invented in the early 1940s, in the wake of the Herald 1938–39 travelling exhibition of French and British contemporary art that had only hitherto been seen in the Antipodes in book plates. William Dobell won the Archibald Prize for his portrait of Mr Joshua Smith in January 1944. But he and the Prize Trustees were sued a few months later on the grounds that his painting was a caricature rather than a portrait of the subject and the prize therefore awarded contrary to the terms of J.F. Archibald’s will. Smith—a portrait painter himself—has said that Dobell told him before he began the painting: ‘I use an element of distortion in order to make the portrait more like the subject than he is himself … You may not like the finished job.’ Smith replied, ‘It’s your job, Bill.’
However, Smith’s parents abhorred the picture, as did many of the 153,000 people who viewed it in the first months of 1944. They felt that it made the subject look ugly, deformed, malformed, cadaverous, malnourished—grotesque and ridiculous; a caricature. But there are photographs of Joshua Smith on the internet in the same pose as his portrait. His thin long-limbed body was clearly ectomorphic, but a doctor has suggested to me that the bone structure of his face and hands indicate he may also have suffered from a growth disorder, acromegaly. He certainly had jug ears. Dobell’s painting depicted the long limbs and hands in fidelity to the proportions shown in the photograph. The shoulders are more sloping, but Smith is sitting in a chair with higher armrests in the photograph. His jaw is less pronounced in the painting than in the photograph.
Justice Roper found in favour of the defendants, saying, ‘The picture in question is characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion … It bears, nevertheless, a strong degree of likeness to the subject and is, I think, undoubtedly a pictorial representation of him.’ Dobell said he was proud of his draftsmanship and didn’t think of himself as a modernist, although 20 years later he said ‘I was really a modernist, a madman’. Joshua Smith won the next year’s Archibald Prize.
At much the same time as Dobell was submitting his portrait of Joshua Smith in 1943, Max Harris in Adelaide received a letter from one Ethel Malley enclosing some poems from her recently deceased brother, Ern, for possible publication in the journal Angry Penguins. Harris was the enfant terrible of the arts in Australia during the war years. Twenty-two years old, an undergraduate at Adelaide University, he was the dynamo in the committee that published and edited the modernist journal. It was funded by two of the committee, Sunday and John Reed, who were devoting their trust funds to the discovery and patronage of artists such as the fourth member of the committee, Sidney Nolan, who was 26 when the Ern Malley poems landed on Harris’s desk.
Harris was convinced that Ern Malley was a new modernist poet, an editor’s joy—a major discovery. So was John Reed, although Sunday was more cautious. Nolan agreed with her that the poems were ‘reminiscent’ of Alister Kershaw—who had just lampooned him and others in the Angry Penguin group in the journal itself:
Where Sidney Nolan, like a looney don,
Shows them canvasses he’s painted on
Or—if his art must rightly be defined—
His blobs of paint with canvasses behind.
Nolan was nevertheless ‘particularly impressed’ when the Reeds sent the poems to him in Dimboola, the country town in the Wimmera district of Victoria where he was serving in the Army guarding food stores against possible Japanese invasion. John Reed told Harris: ‘the main thing is that the poems are good and if this is so, they cannot have been written as a gag, though of course it is possible, that once written the author may have decided to send them to us under another name for some obscure reason of his own.’
Harris entered into correspondence with Ern’s sister Ethel in preparation for immediate publication. Nolan began to paint the poems, finding ‘an explicit painterly instruction about them’. Despite Sunday’s reservations, Nolan wrote that he and Sunday (who had lived for several years in a ménage à trois with John at the Reeds’ salon, a farmhouse called Heide across the Yarra from where the Impressionists often painted that some called ‘the Bloomsbury of the bush’) ‘had a very intimate relationship with the poems’. There were two naked figures in a tree in the painting that became the cover of the May 1944 issue of Angry Penguins featuring the Ern Malley poems. Sidney said ‘the figures in the tree are herself and myself’.
So there was egg on faces all round when it was revealed that Ern Malley’s poems were written over a Saturday afternoon and evening by two anti-modernist poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, in the St Kilda Road barracks of the Australian Army. The poems had been confected from reference books on the desks of the two men, including an American report on mosquito control in New Guinea. They included its opening lines as what might these days be called ‘found poetry’:
Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding grounds …
John Reed told Harris that he and Nolan agreed that they should defend the poems and their publication as coming to the two hoaxers out of ‘the creative stream of the age, which in this case has, unknown to them, broken through their inhibitions and repressions’ as anti-modernists. However, he reported that Sunday was ‘not sure that our evaluation of the position is correct. It is certainly something new that good poetry is created out of deliberate boguery.’ Max Harris faced the jeers of the press and the traditionalist poets and artists with considerable dignity, even when he was charged with publishing obscene material in that autumn 1944 issue—most of it being in Ern Malley’s poems.
McAuley and Stewart had never intended or anticipated that it would come to this, not least because they had taken informal advice from a legal colleague in the army department in St Kilda Road—John Kerr, later to become the governor-general who dismissed prime minister Whitlam in 1975. In a court case in Adelaide in September 1944, a month before the Archibald hearing in Sydney in October, Harris was fined £5 in lieu of six weeks imprisonment, and costs of £21/11/-. Angry Penguins could no longer be sold in South Australia.
Critic Sir Frank Kermode had been in and out of Sydney during the war and ‘had a close-up view of the whole Ern Malley affair’, which he considered ‘one of the most successful hoaxes in literary history’. He noted in 1995 that ‘The story is complicated by the fact that some of the poems weren’t rubbish; the editor was not altogether stupid to accept them. They reached England and were praised by art historian Herbert Read; in the U.S.A. they charmed the youthful John Ashbery and the youthful Kenneth Koch.’ And ‘to this day there are those who strongly defend Malley’s reputation. Paradoxically, it has probably outlasted McAuley’s own.’ McAuley was the editor of Quadrant, the Australian counter-part of Encounter, which Kermode was editing when it was revealed that the magazines were funded by the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Nolan meanwhile had been posted closer to Heide, whither he deserted from the army in August 1944 to avoid being sent on active service to New Guinea. The Reeds—probably John, the lawyer—organised false papers for him in the name of Robin Murray. Over the next two years, himself an outlaw, Nolan painted the first Kelly series mostly at Heide. Sunday always claimed to be a co-creator: she told author Nadine Amadio that ‘she felt that he conceived his art when he was inside of her’. And when he fled Sunday and the Heide hot house in mid 1947 Nolan wrote to John Reed, ‘I do not ever feel that the Kellys belong to anyone other than Sun.’ He also said ‘Without Ern there would have been no Ned.’
Under a 1948 amnesty for deserters, Nolan was discharged in absentia (for misconduct because of illegal absence) in May 1949. A note accompanying the digitised discharge notice in the Virtual Reading Room of the National Archives of Australia comments that:
While absent without leave and sometimes in hiding, Nolan painted prolifically. During this time he completed the iconic Ned Kelly paintings, many of which explore the themes of concealment and identity, concerns that were very close to Nolan’s own experience while avoiding military authorities.
It also notes that:
An entry on this form reveals that Nolan had suffered the amputation of the ends of two fingers on his left hand during his army service. This had occurred in August 1943 and by November the army had recorded that no negligence or misconduct was involved. Injuries to the hand were usually considered suspicious as they were often self-inflicted by men trying to end their military service. (http://vrroom.naa.gov.au/print/?ID=19576)
Ned Kelly had become Australia’s anti-hero in 1880 when he was hanged for killing policemen in his career as a bushranger. In preparation for his last stand at Glenrowan in Victoria, Kelly had made himself and his gang suits of armour from metal plough boards. His own weighed 45 kilos and covered him from head to groin. It is not clear how one could mount a horse wearing all that metal, or how a horse could carry the weight without being spavined.
When the police were closing in on him Kelly corralled 60 hostages in the Glenrowan Inn but the police set fire to it to smoke out the gang. He was shot in the feet and taken to Melbourne Gaol where he was hanged in November 1880 despite a petition for commutation with 30,000 signatures. Sidney Nolan’s grandfather had been one of the policemen who had hunted the Kelly Gang in the late 1870s until he absconded from the police force in 1881.
After leaving Heide and the Reeds in 1947, Nolan travelled in Queensland and then moved to Sydney. Both John and Sunday implored him to come back but he didn’t, and the first set of Kelly paintings that he had made on Heide’s dining table with Sunday standing over him stayed with the Reeds. In March 1948, Nolan married John’s sister Cynthia.
So Nolan was painting in Sydney when Sir Kenneth Clark—Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, former director of the National Gallery in London, future chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain—disembarked on route to Melbourne to advise on purchases by the Felton Bequest for the National Gallery of Victoria.
Although he wrote and lectured almost exclusively on classical European art, Sir Kenneth was close to Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and John Piper. In 1935 the ‘young fogey’ Clark had written in the Listener that ‘We need a new myth in which the symbols are inherently pictorial’ to rescue art from abstract expressionism that he referred to in those days as ‘the Blot and the Diagram’. In June 1940, critic George Bell, who had recommended that Nolan stick to commercial art when he first met him, reviewed Nolan’s first one-man show in Melbourne:
He is striving, as many are overseas, at an absolutely pure art—an art in which representation of objects have no place at all. In these examples, which are entirely abstract, he is seen as experimenting with line, colour, mass and surface texture, significant in themselves as elements of a design discarding all extraneous association of ideas. Preserving his flat surface, he uses arabesques rather than form, pattern rather than volume and colour in its own right and different paint textures rather than imitation textural effects.
Albert Tucker, another attendant at the Heide court, said Sunday ‘had the eye’. Nolan recalled in a 1992 interview that the Reeds had Streeton’s Yarra Valley at Heidelberg (c. 1888) at Heide and ‘Sunday discussed the possibility of using all this modern experience, and the abstract painting experience, in the service of a revival of Australian landscape’.
Brian Adams wrote in his 1987 biography of Nolan that:
Nolan at first was adamant that it was impossible, certainly for him. Nonetheless, he was intrigued by her suggestion and happy to accept a challenge in the spirit of experiment … He knew his affair with abstraction had run its course and that Sunday’s persuasiveness was difficult to resist, although it was an uncomfortable position for any artist close to the Reeds because they represented themselves as spearheading the thrust of the avant-garde and landscape was not supposed to be one of the weapons. Returning to the cradle of Australian art by regression to the land itself seemed a little like betraying a cause.
Nolan had accompanied the flying postman on his rounds during his time in the flatlands of the Wimmera; he had travelled in Queensland including Fraser Island before he settled in Sydney. He visited Kelly country with Max Harris before he painted the first Kelly series. Art historian Nancy Underhill has written that the artist John Olsen ‘told me Nolan changed how Australians saw and painted the land by his time in the Wimmera, by his drought paintings, and above all by his realisation that Australia could best be captured from the air. That way, one could sense the scale of the continent.’ He had also seen and admired Aboriginal painting. According to Adams:
Within a few weeks of coming to the Wimmera area Nolan had sensed it was possible to forge a new imagery from the unpromising countryside and proceeded to go through the painful experience of dismembering his former cubist approach to art, flattening the perception of what he was seeing to embrace the character of the area with its broad wheatland plains dotted by the tall, monument-like structures of the wheat silos all sharpened by an extraordinarily transparent light. He was attempting to transform his previous broken imagery into a flowing, coherent statement about this environment.
He did this, wrote Adams, not with the traditional low horizon line ‘but by tilting the picture plane and providing a high horizon. The solution was derived from a mixture of direct observation and adaptation of Cézanne’s use of distorted planes and tilted perspective.’ Critic Janet McKenzie also noted in 2007 that ‘Nolan tilted the picture plane so that the view of the land became vertical … Primitivism is central to his work that takes a bird’s eye view, making linear perspective disappear.’
Sir Kenneth Clark had seen his first Cézannes in a Bath gallery as a teenager. He wrote in his memoirs, ‘the Cézannes were a knockout blow. One landscape, in particular, gave me the strongest aesthetic shock I had ever received from a picture. I could not keep away from it, and went down the hill to see it almost every day.’ Ever since then ‘Cézanne had been the nineteenth-century painter who meant most to me’.
As he arrived in Australia in late 1948, Clark despatched the proofs of his Landscape into Art that he had corrected on the voyage out to his secretary in London (with a cover note that is in the Tate Archive). The longest discussion of one painter was of Cézanne (the second longest was of ‘the white painter’, Turner). Clark observed that Cézanne ‘felt that a picture must exist as a design of flat patterns even before it creates an illusion of depth’. Impressionists, on the other hand, are looking for ‘a means of rendering continuous modelling by colour … underlying all impressionism is the belief that the unity of a picture depends on the enveloping atmosphere rendered by a continuous weft of colours; whereas Cézanne wished forms to retain their identity and cohere in an architectural relationship. To achieve this, therefore, he began by choosing subjects in which the forms went some way to meet this kind of simplification.’ This resulted in ‘his method of splitting up planes into facets and building his composition out of a number of simplified—sometimes rectangular—shapes’.
By 1950 Nolan had made enough money from his paintings to be able to make the pilgrimage to London with Cynthia and her daughter Jinx. Clark had promised him an exhibition; within a year the Tate bought its first Nolan.
Nancy Underhill says Nolan met Bryan Robertson in Cambridge where Robertson was running a small gallery. In letters now in the Tate Archive in London, the 26-year-old Robertson sought career advice from Kenneth Clark as he emerged from a breakdown in the late 1940s. When the directorship of the Whitechapel Gallery in London fell vacant in 1952 he asked Clark for a reference for it. He said he was excited by ‘the educational side of organizing large scale exhibitions and arousing interest among the public. Its [sic] something that I really can do, with great gusto, and love doing. So the Whitechapel is a very alluring thought.’ Clark immediately agreed to referee for him and he got the job. Clark, who became chairman of the Arts Council in 1953, and Robertson were the primary promoters of Australian art in London.
A decade later, in asking Clark to write the introduction to the catalogue of the pivotal Recent Australian Paintings exhibition in 1961 Robertson wrote:
As I said, although it may sometimes be a great nuisance + interruption to you, the Australians are a faithful lot and they really do still think of you as someone sympathetic to their painting, and difficulties as artists, and your name is constantly evoked over there, quoting you and so on. You are an amiable, avuncular figure to them … One fat paragraph would do.
In another letter he told Clark that ‘émigré Australian painters lurk in wait for me’ behind pillars.
The 1961 Whitechapel exhibition was the culmination of a decade in which Australian painters such as Nolan, Charles Blackman, Brett Whiteley and Lawrence Daws took the British art scene by storm. But reservations were beginning to appear. At the time of Nolan’s March 1961 exhibition held at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, art critic John Russell wrote that
By 1957 Nolan could make a picture of anything at all and not fall below his own standard of spontaneity and surprise: this is more perilous than it may seem … it could be argued that in a period of art-history that is marked above all by a flight from the identifiable image, Nolan’s immediate success may be due to his presenting pictures that in almost every case tell a story.
In 1965 Russell wrote, ‘The public was longing to find a figurative painter whom it could respect, and in Nolan it found him.’ In ‘the first monograph to be produced in Europe on an Australian artist’, by Thames & Hudson in 1961, Sir Kenneth Clark wrote that Nolan ‘is one of the first artists to give the flavour of that strange continent. He has extracted its essences: the red desert, the dead animals, the stranded, ridiculous towns’, whereas ‘Nolan’s Australian predecessors selected those aspects of their country which might have been discovered in the valley of the Seine.’ Colin MacInness noted that ‘Nolan is an artist who has evolved from the conceptual to the figurative instead, as is more usual, the other way about.’ Looking at the first Kelly series, he found that:
The scale is large, and the execution rather ‘naïve’: a ‘primitive’ treatment that seemed, at the time, to be a somewhat systematic and artful way of achieving an atmosphere of ‘folklore’ in these pictures. Mr Nolan has told me that his use of this method was quite deliberate, for the reason that there are practically no ‘folk’ forms from which one can borrow in Australia (other than the aboriginal); and that ‘Kelly’s own words, and Rousseau, and sunlight’ are the ingredients of which they were made.
In the same publication, Bryan Robertson commented on ‘a predilection for an almost obsessional treatment of subject-matter which Nolan has repeatedly shown’. He suggested that:
The basic impulse in the style of Nolan’s first representational paintings, started in 1941–42 and amplified in the first Wimmera landscapes of 1942, came from a new interest in child art and folk art; and a desire to move away from ideas about modern art and to make a fresh beginning—to be direct and instinctive … much of his work was to have something of the quality of magic lantern image project on screen. An anonymity of handling of the use of pigment became a highly personal distinguishing trait in Nolan’s technique, but the bland surfaces are always counterbalanced by extreme precision of tonal construction and great freshness and originality of colour. The figures in the paintings are almost without formal structure, like personages constructed by finger painting—which Nolan has often practised in his smaller studies, also using sponges and any other implements to arrive at particular effects of texture.
With a certain delicacy, Robertson acknowledged that ‘the occasionally weightless quality of his painting has led some observers to suppose that draughtsmanship in the traditional sense of the word is not among his gifts. But Nolan has frequently shown himself to be a master of pure line, with complete authority over formal structure when the occasion arises.’ He warned that ‘An inspired pictorial opportunism flickers in and out of his work which may come from earlier commercial training and sometimes only amounts to an excessive fluency.’
In a curious review in the Sunday Telegraph of the 1961 exhibition he had curated, Bryan Robertson acknowledged the origins of many Australian artists in commercial art: ‘In many ways all Australian artists are painting the same picture: they have more in common than they imagine. But there is much feeling between the different painters over abstraction versus figuration.’ There was also a spat between Brett Whiteley (who became the youngest painter to have a painting bought by the Tate) and Sidney Nolan during the Whitechapel show. According to Bryan Adams in 1987:
Whiteley said he despised Nolan’s picture plane … Flatness of the picture plane was the theory behind the success of contemporary New York painters and extended back through the early days of the modern movement, certainly as far as Cézanne. All painters in the twentieth century were supposed to have a flat picture plane … ‘The problem is, Sid,’ Whiteley continued, ‘you just haven’t got one. You’ve got a terrible idea of picture planes and many of us think you’ve not only betrayed our art, but also the picture plane.’
By the time of the next major exhibition of Australian art in London, in 1963, the expatriate artists and their wives were getting jaded. In an interview with Simon Pierse in 2006, Charles Blackman’s wife Barbara recalled that the opening by royalty was to occur on a Tuesday, which was Charles’ painting day, and he decided not to attend. Barbara ‘wrote a letter of apology to Buckingham Palace explaining that she had contracted measles at the last moment and had not wanted the Queen, who was about to undertake a royal tour, ‘to arrive in Australia spotted’. The letter received a warm response from the Duke of Edinburgh. Other artists and their wives also made excuses: ‘Cynthia Nolan suddenly had an urgent appointment in Paris … Meeting the Royalty had become a bit of a nuisance by then.’
By the late 1960s the bubble was ready to burst, in London at least. As early as 1964 a London Times critic had warned Nolan of the danger that ‘suddenly the public will become weary and your image, over–disseminated and overworked will seem lacking in surprise or, more seriously, in any real meaning.’
In 1971 Nolan accompanied Clark to the Dürer exhibition in Nuremberg. According to Adams, Clark ‘led Nolan to a glass display stand containing Piero della Francesca’s treatise on perspective … ‘That, Sidney, is the treasure in this room, and I will now leave you to examine it more carefully.’
Nolan and his wife Cynthia had become friends with Patrick White, who in 1973 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘his epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’. In his presentation speech Artur Lundkvist of the Swedish Academy noted that:
For all his originality, there is no denying that Patrick White displays certain typical features of Australian literature generally sharing it with the background, natural history and ways of life of the country. It is also well known that White stands in close relation to advanced Australian pictorial [emphasis added] artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Russel [sic] Drysdale, who with the means at their disposal aim at something of the same expressiveness as he sets out to achieve in his writing.
White not being willing to risk a winter trip to Scandinavia because of his severe asthma, he asked Nolan to read his perfunctory acceptance speech.
The arts in Australia have long concerned themselves with romans à clef and treatments of historical events. There are a dozen Ned Kelly films available on Amazon, dating back to 1906. Patrick White was meeting and writing to director Joseph Losey about a possible film of Voss. And critic Artur Lundkvist was right to see the Australian artists of the 1950s and 1960s as essentially pictorialists. This is one reason why the ‘abs v figs’ debates between Sydney and Melbourne in these years were but a sideshow to what was going on in London as the pictorialists were developing—and marketing—a faux naive fusion or what Bernard Smith called in 1970 ‘a kind of sham folk-art style’ indebted in Nolan’s case to ‘Rousseau and sunlight’. Nolan said ‘I gradually … completely identified with what I was looking at and I forgot all about Picasso, Klee and Paris … and became attached to light.’
A month before White was awarded the Nobel Prize, then prime minister Gough Whitlam had authorised the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for the as yet unbuilt national art gallery. Australia paid A$1.34 million (then US$2 million according to the Economist) for what had been purchased in 1957 for US$32,000. In his study of this acquisition of American abstract expressionist art, essayist Lindsay Barrett says that there was no form of price testing in the open market, and that the price doubled once the Australian negotiators met with the seller in New York. It was the highest price paid till then for an American artwork, and was a landmark in the commodification—and liquidification—of art well beyond Australia. The seller gave a photocopy of the cheque to his daughter to take to school in New York for show and tell. Gough Whitlam used a picture of Blue Poles for his prime ministerial Christmas card.
Patrick White had been announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature on the same day as the opening of the Sydney Opera House in October 1973. The primary architect, Jørn Utzon, was neither present nor mentioned in what he had come to refer to as ‘Malice in Blunderland’. So there was Gough Whitlam and the first Labor government in 23 years presiding over a cornucopia of cultural capital in art, literature and architecture. But like Whitlam’s prime ministership, it only lasted for a few years.
White’s friendship with Nolan did not survive Cynthia Nolan’s suicide in 1976 and Sidney’s marriage to Mary Perceval nee Boyd soon after. White wrote to Randolph Stow in 1979, ‘I couldn’t forgive his falling on the bosom of another one when Cynthia’s ashes were barely cold, that is why he has become such a dreadful painter.’ And to Joseph Losey in 1981, the year Nolan was knighted, White wrote, ‘Sid has developed into the great commercial traveller and gravy-train artist.’
The Sydney Opera House continues to be admired, as does Blue Poles, which was in London at the end of 2016 and considered by many to be the focal point of the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition. The Economist estimates its value today to be A$100 million, which is slightly less than the rate of capital gain on an inner Melbourne terrace house on which I had a mortgage for $14,000 in 1974 and I see has recently sold for $1,400,000.
In the same year, 1960, as Bryan Robertson published his book on Sidney Nolan he also published Jackson Pollock with Thames & Hudson to follow the first major exhibition of his work in London, at the Whitechapel in 1958. Robertson celebrated the ‘spattered paint swiftly flicked from a loaded brush’, declaring ‘This is painting by remote control, no brush or intermediary tool of any kind acts as a barrier between the spectator and the convolutions of the paint. Immediacy and a fastidiously contrived spontaneity reign supreme.’ All of which made it sound a bit like those competitions out the back of the boys dunnies at school. Sir Kenneth Clark shared Robertson’s enthusiasm for Pollock. Six months after he returned from Australia in early 1949 he had experienced another epiphany when he was in Venice for the Bellini exhibition. He recalled
Walking back to the Hotel Monaco, at the corner of the Piazza, I could see through the open doors of an exhibition gallery, large canvasses covered with scrawls of aggressive paint. They screamed and shouted at one from the back of the banal modern gallery. No greater contrast to the quiet and comforting voice of Bellini can be imagined. At first I was horrified, but in the end I went in before visiting the Bellinis, and recognised these explosions of energy were the work of a genuine artist. It was the first European exhibition of Jackson Pollock.
If Nolan was fusing a new pictorialism, Pollock was the least pictorial of painters.
In mid 1975 (18 months after the Australian government bought Blue Poles) Robertson was appointed associate director of the National Gallery of Victoria on Clark’s brief reference (in the Tate Archive), which was cautious about his administrative skills, without an interview. But Robertson’s health was failing again, as evidenced by the collapse of his copperplate handwriting in the long-winded letters in the Tate archive in London, and he decided not to take the job. He gave his reason to Clark as ‘Dread, really, of going off to the other side of the world.’
Clark continued to prosper, dying as The Rt. Hon. The Lord Clark OM CH KCB FBA in 1983. Sidney Nolan too, despite his dishonourable discharge from the Australian Army, was knighted in 1981, received the Order of Merit in 1983, followed by a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1988. He died in his Welsh home in 1992.
Clark had warned, ‘The young artist whom I had found (not ‘discovered’) twenty years before had grown to be a great name in modern art. When time has weeded out his colossal output and the didactic snobbery of abstract art had declined, he will be of even greater renown.’ Nolan is said to have produced 40,000 works over his lifetime. Nolan himself wrote in 1986:
I am now
an honoured skeleton
at the Australian feast
of the tall poppies stricken
I will not be the least.
We are probably at least halfway through what may come to be known as the Anglo-European Period of Australian history. It may yet produce an Australian school of art but so far we have not seen it in the colonial artists or the settler artists or the Australian Impressionists. For four decades in the mid-twentieth century there flourished what we might call ‘Anglo-Australian Faux Naive Fusionism’, which emerged a kilometre or two across the Yarra River from the Heidelberg of the Impressionists, on the dining table at Heide. As John Reed said of Ern Malley’s poetry, ‘It is certainly something new that good poetry is created out of deliberate boguery.’ As Sidney Nolan said, ‘Without Ern there would have been no Ned.’ The highest price paid so far for a Nolan is A$5.4 million, for one of the first Kelly series. The Australian art sales market in total is said to be about A$115 million a year. We still don’t really know why Blue Poles is considered to be worth as much as a street of inner-city terrace houses and Nolan’s First Class-Marksman only three or four of them.
But even if some at least of these Faux Naive Fusionist paintings are meretricious, they did help us to start to see Australia for itself and not as a suburb of Europe. And they prepared Anglo-Australians to begin to see Aboriginal art. •
Sue Rabbitt Roff grew up in Melbourne. Her debut novel, a picaresque segue from the Australian art bubble in 1960s London to 1970s Timor, is looking for a good home.