Sidney Nolan, a New Retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

November 22, 2007 at 12:29 am (Uncategorized)

I love the AGNSW after dark. It’s probably my favourite time to go. Every Wednesday, the gallery remains open until 9 pm, so you can go straight from work, cruise around the exhibitions and permanent collection for a couple of hours, and then slink off for a drink and/or dinner afterwards. I think it’s brilliant. I suppose I think it’s especially brilliant because I like to spend weekends with my husband, and rarely does he feel like going back into the CBD in his free time. He hops on that Jet Cat of a Friday afternoon and that’s it: he’s out of there, and who can blame him?

So I’m a fan of the after dark opening, although now Daylight Savings has kicked in, it’s not exactly dark. And the big ticket item at the AGNSW at the moment is of course the Sidney Nolan retrospective. And let’s be clear: I was not really expecting to like this exhibition very much. That whole Ned Kelly fetish of Nolan’s – and until last night, that’s about all I knew of him because that’s all anyone ever shows to represent his body of work – has always been iconic, sure, but also a little bit ho hum to me. I’ve never been a fan. And so I was going more because I believe that good children should always eat their greens, not because I think that they will necessarily enjoy them.

It’s always really thrilling, therefore, when the broccoli surpasses expectation (Brussels sprouts simply never do). That’s the very real reward for pinching your nose, chewing your cud, and swallowing. Likewise, it turned out – surprise, surprise – that the Nolan exhibition was thoroughly edible. I mean…edifying. It was very edifying indeed.

I even saw some of the Ned Kelly series in a whole new light, and in fact light was the word of the exhibition: how did he get the light so right? Nolan seemed to have a truly uncanny ability to capture the peculiarities of Australian light – as it reflects off the river in the extraordinary Riverbend I (1964-65) and II (1965-66), as it moves across the icy plains of Antarctica (1964), as it becomes hopelessly entangled in and oppressed by the mist of the Chinese Mountain Landscape with Three Boats (1982), as it’s expelled from the eerie escape of the Convict in Swamp (1958), and, yes, as it slips through the trees and hides in the sky of Return to Glenrowen (1946) and Kelly and the Landscape (1960).

It’s quite a trick of the light.

His range surprised me. The variety of material, theme, and method. I had no idea he was quite so versatile. I felt quite humbled by my total underestimation of his talents and contribution to Australian art. I would never have recognised the dark, perverse erotica of the Leda and the Swan series (1960) as his. And the bad-ass Miner (1972), well, he seemed to reach forward out of the frame to spit and bum a smoke.

Finally, there was the Self-portrait in Youth (1992), ironic, it seemed to me, elegiac, mysterious, and eternal. Like much of his work, I see now.

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