#NOLAN100 - NO.26
Self Portrait in Youth, 1986
Sidney Nolan’s manner of seizing an image might have earned him a similar reference to his contemporary Willem de Kooning as a slipping glimpser. With his eye’s aperture Nolan would blink before a motif, turn quickly away, and embrace a prey that may never have been snared with an orthodox gaze; like the shapes and glimmers of a spirit world snapped by ghost hunters. Nolan, swift, impatient, preferred this process over time-honoured construction through drawing and a slower rationale of layering, vouchsafing him an original place in the story of modern Australian painting.
He had discovered a counterpart in the hallucinatory visions of the nineteenth century French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud in the late 1930s. Rimbaud became disheartened when he felt unable to make the ultimate transition into his parallel universe, and gave up poetry altogether at the age of twenty. Nolan came as close as possible to such an idea of disembodied transition in the spray paintings of Chinese mountains and mists and pure abstractions made during the last decade of his life at The Rodd.
Amongst them was the remarkable Self portrait in youth, of 1986, interpreted by some as a reflection of the artist’s fading reputation. However to discern the intention of this ambiguous, valedictory spectre of himself, attired perhaps in the long Irish coat with fur collar Nolan so loved to wear in winter, we need to ponder an earlier version of 1943, in which horizontal stripes of colour on his forehead, palette and brushes like weapons of intent, emanate the stance of a rebel. Four decades later the stripes have become vertical, shifted to the periphery, the rebel in retreat. It is as if the artist has walked through the portal of a Jean Cocteau mirror, turning back to us whispering that he had always, like his hero Rimbaud, only ever wanted to become immersed in the other side.
Barry Pearce is the former head curator of Australian Art at Art Gallery of New South Wales.
When I visited Sidney and Mary at The Rodd in 1985 he told me that he wanted to do a series of libellous paintings for posthumous release, 'which tell it like it really is because it's a bit difficult to come out with it when you're alive.' Just before Mary died I asked her if he'd ever got round to these libellous paintings and she said no, he hadn't. So I guess this had been the playful mischief in him talking (which it often did). Such pictures would have been interesting of course but they weren't really necessary, because for me his greatest quality wasn't 'coming out with it' but an eeriness, even a sense of the occult: the pictures convey far more than they portray. I reminded him that Kenneth Clark once compared Nolan's pictures to the music of Benjamin Britten, in their sense of menace, of something very strange just over the horizon; and I added 'But I think your work is more sinister than Britten's.' He flinched: 'Oh dear - really?' 'It's a compliment,' I said. 'Yes . . . ' he murmured distantly, 'I suppose it is. With that in mind, I would like to draw attention to this disturbing and beautiful Self Portrait of 1986, in which dream, terror, and warm physical reality shift ceaselessly. As with so many of his works, one keeps on looking, trying - and failing - to solve the questions it raises.
Duncan Fallowell is an English novelist, travel writer, journalist and critic.
'Self-portrait in Youth' (1986), Sidney Nolan, enamel spray on canvas, 183 X 160.5 cm, © Royal Academy of Arts, London.