Issue Number: 120
The RA’s ‘Australia’ exhibition is complemented by a series of talks by some of the country’s leading writers. Here, novelist Alex Miller describes how his life was transformed by Australia’s great 20th-century painter Sidney Nolan, whose work is featured in the show
My first encounter with the art of Sidney Nolan was not with a painting but with one of his photographs in a book on the Australian outback. In the photograph several stockmen in silhouette are lounging on a veranda, their attention directed towards a featureless horizon. The sole incident in the image is a dead tree in the middle distance, its solitary splintered branch gesticulating like a shout into the emptiness and the silence.
Sidney Nolan, 'Veranda', 1953, which was on the cover of Patrick White’s novel The Tree of Man (1956, Penguin). © the Sidney Nolan Trust. The year was 1953. I was 16 at the time and working as a labourer on a farm in Somerset, my mind filled with dreams of adventure in distant lands. The empty horizon of Nolan’s image and the silent cry of his dead tree captivated my imagination and haunted my dreams. With that photograph Nolan had arrested something in the desolate field of his vision that most people would not have seen.
I conceived my own vision out of his photograph and decided to go to Australia and see the outback for myself. The dead tree was a theme that was to reappear in Nolan’s paintings and drawings later. Veranda, his drawing on the cover of the Penguin edition of Patrick White’s 1956 novel, The Tree of Man, replicates the image – the veranda of the abandoned house, the featureless horizon and the dead tree, its single branch gesturing toward the sky like a Giacometti figure. This is not a neutral landscape study, but an image filled with social commentary on Australia. It is the aching absence of the human figure that holds our attention in the drama of the deserted house, the tragedy and consequence of history and failed ambition. It is a picture of the death of the tree of life.
Perhaps it was this view of Australia that eventually led Nolan to decide to go to live in England’s green and pleasant land. The nationalist poet Henry Lawson, in A Song of the Republic (1887), likened England to the ‘Old Dead Tree’ and Australia to the ‘Young Tree Green’, a theme also celebrated in the title of volume six of Manning Clark’s _A History of Australia: The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green (1987). Nolan’s fiercely honest image reversed Lawson’s and Clark’s nationalistic pretensions and cut through to the bleak truth. Nolan’s vision of Australia was too much for his contemporaries and he paid for it with the enmity of many of his fellow artists. Leaving Australia and going to live in England, where he was to earn a knighthood and membership of the Royal Academy, was perhaps Nolan’s response to this early but stubborn reluctance among his own people to celebrate his work.
Sidney Nolan, 'Pretty Polly Mine', 1948. Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales - Purchased 1949/© The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust/AGNSW.
Nolan did not abandon Australia, however, when he went to live in England in 1950, but continued to paint his native land for the rest of his life with the same uncompromising honesty and love of country with which he had first depicted it. As a result he has become over the years the most celebrated of Australia’s artists in his own country. His iconic ‘Ned Kelly’ series from 1946-47 in particular – four of which are in the RA show – are easy reading and remain his most popular works, but it is the uncompromising quality of his vision of the landscape that still unsettles many Australian artists and remains his greatest achievement.
Nolan was an intellectual as well as a painter of genius. His originality and fierce independence has made him difficult to place for many people. Nolan’s work is not derivative of the traditions of European or American art, and he is one of the few non-indigenous Australian artists to have established a style uniquely his own. Nolan does not belong to a tradition.
A year after seeing Nolan’s photograph I arrived alone in Australia, where I found Nolan’s outback and became a stockman. No image has ever spoken to me so vividly and with such consequence. In 1961, Thames & Hudson published the first monograph on the art of Nolan. Although I was a university student by then and short of money, I bought a copy of the expensive book and sent it to my father in England as a Christmas gift. I believed Nolan’s images, informed by myth and history, the anti-establishment iconography of Australian nationalism, and the stray and broken bonds of old Europe, would tell my father more about the strange attraction Australia held for me than my letters ever would.
Kenneth Clark wrote in his introduction to the book, ‘he [Nolan] treats his medium with a certain impatience, and uses any means to secure his meaning’. I hoped my father would respond as I had to this vivid freedom in Nolan’s pictures. But he loathed Nolan’s art. I was bewildered. Why hadn’t my father, a keen amateur painter himself, been as ravished as I had been by the Australia Nolan invited us to contemplate?
Nolan came back to the forefront of my life in 1989 when the Australian poet and long-time friend of Nolan, Barrett Reid and I became friends. Barrett had inherited the care of the home of John and Sunday Reed at Heide, where Nolan had spent his formative years becoming an artist with the support of the wealthy couple. Barrett took me to a retrospective of Australian Modernism at the National Gallery of Victoria, and as we went from painting to painting he described for me the genesis of each picture. Some years later, after I began my novel The Ancestor Game (1992) with a brief commentary on the 1961 Nolan monograph, Barrett said to me, ‘You’re the one to write a novel about Nolan.’ The result of this suggestion was eventually to become Autumn Laing (2011), a novel in which Nolan and his art are seen through the eyes of his one-time lover Sunday Reed.
Nolan was a working-class boy with ambition. His early years in this respect paralleled my own, and I felt I understood him and the struggle to achieve in art that he had set himself. Nolan’s art remains mysterious to me, although that early silver-gelatin photograph of the dead tree is engraved in my memory. It isn’t, after all, what we think we understand of the artist’s work but what eludes us that sustains our belief in the artist’s genius. Sometimes the mystery of what art is and what it does for us can touch the sacred in our lives. Nolan has been one such artist in my life. Despite the many years he lived in the softness of England’s countryside, the truth of his Australian vision remained uncompromised to the end.