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Sidney Nolan

Ikon is very excited to be exhibiting the work of Sidney Nolan which is on show until 3 September 2017. This exhibition, part of a nationwide programme presented by the Sidney Nolan Trust to celebrate the centenary of Nolan’s birth, brings to light a selection of extraordinary spray painted portraits dating from the 1980s. Anthony Plant, Director of the Sidney Nolan Trust shares his insight into Nolan’s spray paintings.

Anthony Plant, Director of the Sidney Nolan Trust
Almost all published material on the artist Sidney Nolan inevitably begins with the story of his employment as a young man in the design department of a hat factory in Melbourne where he first learned to work with commercial spray paint. This was in the mid-1930s and the spray paint and the variety of other mediums that he used there intrigued him; so much so that it led to a lifetime of experimentation and innovation, constantly challenging himself to understand new and novel combinations of materials in his search for an unhindered expression of emotion.

A few months before his death, in 1992, Sidney explained that after leaving the hat factory he had started out as an abstract artist but, influenced by the work of artists such as Picasso, Miro, Ernst and Klee, he had become increasingly figurative. Throughout his subsequent career Nolan seemed to tread a middle path, between abstraction and the figurative, developing an elusive and personal style that defied categorisation. He always searched, however, to abstract some kind of reference or device from the subject matter that he painted, a key that would aid the viewer to home in on that aspect of the theme that he wished to communicate; the black square of Ned Kelly’s homemade armour, the ostrich feather in the slouch hat of the Australian soldier at Gallipoli or the round black holes (sunglasses) in the faces of the Antarctica scientists, faces framed by the fur of their hoods.

Sir Sidney Nolan, Untitled, (1986) Spray paint on canvas 183.5 x 161 cm © the Sidney Nolan Trust

Sir Sidney Nolan, Untitled, (1986) Spray paint on canvas  © the Sidney Nolan Trust

In the 1980s, Nolan spray painted an extraordinary collection of abstract portraits in the ancient barns of his estate, The Rodd, on the Welsh Border. They mostly depict individuals that had strong personal significance for Nolan, including his brother (killed in World War II), close friend Benjamin Britten, Francis Bacon and fellow Australian artist Brett Whiteley. For these, he reverted once more to commercial spray paint, taking himself right back to the beginning of his career. He claimed that as an older man he wanted to be more direct and to try and look at himself as if he was somebody else. Rather than joining the growing number of artists who had taken to the use of spray paint at this time Nolan was in his own world, once again using the techniques of his youth to reinvestigate his career.

Sir Sidney Nolan, Francis Bacon, (1982) Spray paint on canvas  © Sidney Nolan Trust

In Nolan’s studio, that has been left undisturbed at The Rodd since he last worked there, there are trestle tables bent under the weight of so many spray cans. Amongst the Marabu Buntlack Professional and Holts Dupli-Colour there are cans of Holts Fly Squash Remover and Blair Spray Clear Protective Coating, employed by Nolan for reasons far removed from their intended use. As Nolan’s favourite poet Arthur Rimbaud stated, ‘One must be absolutely modern.’

Sir Sidney Nolan, Untitled, 1987 Spray paint on canvas  © the Sidney Nolan Trust

Sir Sidney Nolan, Untitled (1987) Spray paint on canvas  © Sidney Nolan Trust

Part of the Sidney Nolan Centenary 2017, a year-long nationwide programme of exhibitions, events and publications to celebrate the work and legacy of the artist Sir Sidney Nolan OM AC RA, and to mark the centenary of his birth. It is presented by the Sidney Nolan Trust.

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