When you think Sidney Nolan, iconic images of the Australian outback or Ned Kelly may immediately come to mind, but it’s a lesser known series of Nolan’s paintings on slate that have long captivated art historian, writer and curator, Dr Chris McAuliffe. Chris is Professor of Art (Practice-led research) at the School of Art, ANU and has curated the recently opened exhibition at UQ Art Museum, We who love: The Nolan slates. We caught up with Chris to learn more about what inspired his interest in this work and its creator.
Q: To put things in context, can you provide an insight into the period in which these paintings on slate were made, and describe them in terms of Sidney Nolan’s career?
A: The bare bones of Nolan’s biography in the early 1940s read like a picaresque novel. He’s in his early twenties, with little formal art training and hardly any money. He’s exhibiting works that mark him as an enfant terrible in Melbourne’s small avant-garde scene but he’s not sure whether he wants to be a painter or a poet. He married, became a father and started an affair in the space of a few years. And he’s looking down the barrel of active service as the war in the Pacific heats up. So there’s ambition and insecurity, love and betrayal, art and politics, life and death – all the things that sober-minded art historians are meant to avoid. But over the course of the 1940s, I think these conflicts drove Nolan to work out what kind of artist he was going to be.
Q: Nolan is one of Australia’s most revered artists, yet his paintings on slate are largely unknown. What is it about the slates that make them such a special series, and what prompted you to research this aspect of Nolan’s practice?
A: Nolan’s certainly an iconic artist, though not always revered. When I was a student in the 1970s, he was regarded as a bit of a hustler, living off past glories. When I first came across the slates at UQ Art Museum, I was surprised that there were gaps in the record and early works that had been ignored. So much had been written on Nolan and yet there were still paintings that no one, not even Nolan himself, had considered in any depth. I see the slates as a window into a crucial period in Nolan’s personal and artistic formation; the moment, I think, when he really gets serious about becoming a modern artist. It’s not that he appears fully-formed in the slates, but he seems to realise that modernism isn’t just about energy and effrontery, that he has to knuckle down and build some substantial foundations.
Q: Can you share a little about the recurring motifs that appear in the slates? Do they also appear in other work from the period?
A: Within the slates there are a number of repeated images that reflect Nolan’s personal experience and artistic interests at the time. There are sensual symbols reflecting his affair with Sunday Reed (such as lovers and flowers) and traumatic images relating to his looming military service (wounds and corpses). There are also poetic symbols drawn from his eclectic reading (angels, boats). It’s a combination of emotional intensity and self-conscious statements – as if he’s talking both to people close to him and to the art world at large.
What’s interesting is that some elements of the slates appear again and again in Nolan’s work. Some of them I’m not sure he was even aware of. He was always drawn to the pearly sheen of enamel paints. He seems to like the idea of sensuous, mirage-like surfaces. That really comes to the fore in his later landscapes. And flying figures, as well as aerial points of view, are a constant in his art for decades. He’s attracted to the sweeping, encompassing view. Maybe his eyes were bigger than his stomach, as he wrote in one letter. Or maybe he thought painting was about gathering in the world. The slates belong to a particular moment but they echo through his unconscious for decades to come.
Q: What has intrigued you most about the story you’ve uncovered through your research into the Nolan slates?
A: First of all, I was surprised (and relieved) to find that there was still something new to say about Nolan. Second, I was intrigued by how strategic Nolan was as an artist. Of course everyone saw him as a mover and shaker in his later life, but at the time he made the slates, he was just a young man sizing up the Melbourne scene. He wasn’t always subtle or sophisticated about it, but he understood that an ambitious artist really had to work out a convincing position; had to be a modernist, not just go through the motions. Nolan’s paintings, letters and his art-world partnerships, reveal an artist matching his ambitions to his situation in war-time Melbourne and figuring out what kind of modernism would work. Nolan’s slate paintings are intuitive and personal – even romantic – but he was hell-bent on trumping the European avant-garde. Finally, I think what everyone involved in the exhibition enjoyed was the good old-fashioned spadework. We had a lot of geeky conversations about dates, symbols and even which way is up.
We who love: The Nolan slates is showing at UQ Art Museum until 24 July 2016.