Centenary of Sidney Nolan's Birth Celebrated With Exhibitions

  • BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom
  • /
  • April 03, 2017

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Sir Sidney Nolan Illuminations (1982), Spray paint on canvas, courtesy Sidney Nolan Trust

Born in Australia, Sidney Nolan (1917 - 1992), is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. An exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, 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. It includes a series made in 1982 for an exhibition at Nolan Gallery, at Lanyon just outside Canberra, depicting individuals that had strong personal significance for Nolan, including his brother (tragically killed in the Second World War), close friend Benjamin Britten, Francis Bacon and fellow Australian artist Brett Whiteley. 

A later series shown here, dating from May 1987, features Aboriginal subjects as Nolan was returning to a theme that was evident very early in his artistic career; namely the unresolved relationship between indigenous Australians and European settlers. Between 1987 and 1991, as a result of growing public concern, there was a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody set up to investigate the causes of deaths of Aboriginal people while held in Australian gaols.  It is likely that Nolan shared these concerns, resulting in this vivid series of works, deriving dramatic impact from their resemblance on one hand to spray-painted graffiti, with transgression implied, and on the other to Aboriginal cave paintings.

Jonathan Watkins Director of Ikon said “The portraits made mainly with spray paint on canvas, exemplify the unflagging inventiveness of Nolan. Large and stylistically very free, they are like spontaneous breathings of colour, artistic conspiracies that conjure up likenesses mainly of people staring wide-eyed out of their pictorial space - European and Aboriginal.  Like ghosts wanting to make contact they seem to interrogate us, spectrally, with their gaze.”

Sir Sidney Nolan Seasons in Hell (1982), Spray paint on canvas, courtesy Sidney Nolan Trust

The 1980s was the decade of post-modernism, of Keith Haring (spray-painting) and a return to figuration in visual art, but it would be a mistake to cast Nolan simply in some trans-avant-garde light, because he never stopped painting figuratively and/or being stylistically expressionistic. During that decade he was an elderly artist increasingly unconcerned about artistic convention, very candid and more true to himself than ever. He could not have been stronger at the end of his artistic career.

The exhibition at Ikon will be accompanied by a publication with texts by Jane Clark and Ian Henderson.

This exhibition is 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. www.sidneynolantrust.org

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