#Nolan 100

No 62. Head - Celia Johnson

Published:

No 62. Head - Celia Johnson

I was preparing to write about a different painting; I’m drawn to Sidney Nolan’s beautifully strange and often disquieting landscapes, those that are informed by myth and painted from a distance with, as Kate McMillan discusses in her essay for Transferences[1], a colonial viewpoint.

Or perhaps ‘Thames’ which feels very different, a more romantic exploration of the experience and observation of place that is no less beautiful but less unsettling than the Australian landscapes. 

In fact, the painting I’ve chosen was hanging on the right of ‘Thames’ in Australia House for the Unseen exhibition; I almost passed it by, but was halted by what I most admire about Sidney Nolan’s work - the fluency and confidence of the gesture, the bold immediacy of the mark, and the palette:  Prussian blue and burnt umber scribbled and washed across the canvas - parts of which are left unpainted, tones of crimson and maybe sienna red splashed and scrubbed towards its top.  I was stopped and struck by the brush marks and by the colour of the painting before I even began to notice its subject. 

‘Head’, painted in 1964, is a portrait of a man; he looks out at us squarely (though not quite from the centre of the canvas), he has a low forehead and the broad flattened, maybe much broken, nose of a fighter.  A boxer perhaps or just someone who gets into a lot of fights.  A white man, possibly European, maybe the face of a settler? Blood red whips above each of his eyebrows and below his left eye it splashes out across and from the side of his face - painted blood and painted flesh merging and moving together.  His head is completely still but flesh and fluid are in motion, and drip - as full of movement as his stance, for all its being made so loosely, isn’t. His face is a mess.  Perhaps he’s only just been struck but he seems composed, his head is held high, erect - on a neck that appears strangely lengthened, rising from too narrow shoulders.  He is beaten up but stoic.

He would be looking out at us, but his eyes are narrow, almost or completely closed by the blow that hit him, or the blood over his eyes. We can look back at him then, unashamedly; he is presented to us for our viewing, offered up for consideration.  Painted roughly, he looks tough and his is not a pretty face (for one thing, he appears not to have ears) - more a kind of comic character, a Desperate Dan with a smaller head (the low forehead suggesting a lack of intellectual enquiry).  He is bloodied but unbowed and the more I look at him, the more troubled I feel.  Initially I’d felt a kind of admiration for his stoicism but on consideration, he is more thug than warrior.

I wonder if he won or lost his fight, if it was a fight and he’s just emerged from the ring, or if he was beaten up; I wonder about the other man (I wonder about my assumptions).  He doesn’t look like the victim so what or who has been left in his wake, what scrap is he returned from? I wonder why Sidney Nolan painted him - what was the story behind it? It was painted in 1964 and I wonder what was happening to Sidney then.  So much of his work is informed by myth, history, autobiography, is this a self portrait - was he feeling pretty beaten up, emotionally pummeled when he painted it? Is this a portrait of an everyman - bruised and beaten but still standing, a bloodied icon of stoic maleness?  Or, more disturbingly, an image of male violence, of settler violence?  Could he be a convict?  In my mind I remember this painting as ‘The Pugilist’ but it’s titled simply as ‘The Head’. I’ve created a character out of a portrait with a more universal intention and I consider the euphemism - there’s something phallic about this portrait - the small erect head, bruised, the long neck, and I wonder again what Sidney was thinking about when he painted it.

It is a painting that I kept returning to when I first encountered it and that I came back to see again.  Attracted first and foremost by its quality of gesture, and by colours that I particularly love, then by the mystery of its subject - it’s a work full of contradiction and questions.  This is the head of a man who appears tough and stoic but is wounded, bloodied; still and yet in motion; a symbol of thoughtless violence or of brave endurance? It’s painted loosely - a sketch that might seem unfinished by the amount of white canvas - suggesting perhaps the unfinished, unmade, character of a violent man? The roughness, the kind of bravura and speed of Sidney Nolan’s mark making so perfectly suiting its subject in a work that I find strangely fascinating and which has become an unexpected and unsettling favourite."


Celia Johnson is a walking artist who is currently making work in response to 'Paradise Garden' by Sidney Nolan and will be working in residence at the Rodd in September.  She makes sited and studio based work to investigate place, memory and identity and facilitates participatory walks and events/workshops (often at the SNT) that explore and create encounters with, and deepen the experience of, place. http://www.celia-johnson.com/

Sidney Nolan, Head, c.1964, oil on board, 122 x 91.5cm, Collection of the Sidney Nolan Trust, © Sidney Nolan Trust.

[1] McMillan Kate. 2017  ‘Sidney Nolan & The Colonial Sublime‘. Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain.  Pallant House Gallery.

No.1 - Four Abstracts - Alexander Downer

No.2 - Self Portrait - Angus Trumble

No.3 - Arabian Tree - Kendrah Morgan

No.4 Riverbend I - Francine Stock

No.5 - Desert - Andrew Logan

No.6 Dog and Duck - Jane Clark

No.7 Vivisector - Tim Abdallah

No.8 In the Cave - Rebecca Daniels

No.9 Young Soldier - Clare Woods

No.10 Ned Kelly - Shaun Gladwell

No.11 Bird - Deborah Ely

No. 12 Hare in Trap - Nicholas Usherwood

No.13 Untitled (Catani Arch, St Kilda) - David Rainey

No.14 Death of a Poet - Simon Martin

No.15 Study for Samson et Dalila - Elijah Moshinsky

No.16 Rimbaud at Harar - Edmund Capon AM OBE

No.17 Quilting the Armour - Jackie Haliday

No.18 Snake - David Walsh

No.19 Angel and the Tree - Dr Nicky McWilliam

No.20 Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse - Damian Smith

No.21 Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl -Jennifer Higgie

No.22 Women and Billabong - Anthony Plant

No.23 Agricultural Hotel - Philip Mead

No.24 Policeman in a Wombat Hole - Kay Whitney

No.25 Peter Grimes - David Lipsey

No.26 Self Portrait in Youth - Barry Pearce & Duncan Fallowell

No.27 Riverbend I - Ian Dungavell

No.28 Drowned Soldier at Anzac as Icarus - Paul Gough

No.29 Thames - John Tooley

No.30 Girl - Amelda Langslow

No.31 Ned Kelly and Policeman - Daniel Crawshaw

No.32 Tarred and Feathered - Nick Cave

No.33 Self Portrait - Denise Mimmocchi

No.34 Peter Grimes's Apprentice - George Vass

No.35 The Emu Hunt - Roger Law

No.36 Luna Park - Paula Dredge

No.37 Rose in Coffee Pot - Anthony Collier

No.38 The Cardplayers - Nevin Jayawardena

No.39 Bathers - Lesley Harding

No.40 Aboriginal Girl - Jennie Milne

No.41 Pretty Polly Mine - Michael Brand

No 42. Roses in a Merric Boyd Vase - Jack Galloway

No 43. Brett Whiteley - Jonathan Watkins

No 44. Island - Nick Yelverton

No 45. Luna Park - Bill Granger

No 46. Face of the Damned - Kate McMillan

No 47. Central Australia - Leanne Santoro

No 48. Crane - Brian Adams

No 49. Myself - Simon Mundy

No 50. Going to Work, Rising Sun Hotel, 1948 - David Ferry

No 51. Figure at Harar - Andrew Turley

No 52, Greek Figures - Simon Pierse

No 53. Randolph Stow - Suzanne Falkiner

No 54. Landscape No.27 (Convalescence) - Suzanne Falkiner

No 55. Self portrait - Oliver McCall

No 56. McMurdo Sound - Mike Clements

No 57. Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse - Mark Fraser

No 58. Season in Hell (Benjamin Britten) - Anne Bean

No 59. The Slip - Humphrey Ocean

No 60. Central Australia - Chris Drury

No 61. Riverbend - Christina Slade

No 62. Head - Celia Johnson

No 63. Myth Rider - Desmond Browne

No 64. Stockman - Bridget McDonnell

No 65. Untitled (flower) - Roma Piotrowska

No 66. Chinese Landscape - Celia Perceval

No 67. Untitled - Des Hughes

No 68. Crucifixion - Rod Bugg

No 69. Icebergs - Laurence Hall

No 70. Bather in a Lily Pool - Amanda Fitzwilliams

No 71. Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head - Michael Berkeley

No 72. Carcase in Swamp - Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

No 73. Ern Malley - Isabella Boorman

No 74. Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan - Adrian Kelly

No 75. Landscape Carnarvon Range, Queensland - Catherine Noske

No 76. Abraham and Isaac - Sarah Bardwell

No 77. Rosa Mutabilis - Catherine Hunter

No 78. Artist drawing nude - Victoria Lynn

No 79. Boy and the moon - Natalie Wilson

NO 80. Explorer and Township - Helen Idle

No 81. All Tastes Like Dust in the Mouth... - Carolyn Leder

No 82. Young Boy Who Was Good at Latin - Roxy Shaw

No 83. Mrs Fraser - Anne Carter

No 84. Paradise Garden - David Oliver

No 85. Leda and the Swan - Marilyn Sweet

No 86. Burke and Wills at the Gulf - Jenny Watson

No 87. Dream of the latrine sitter - Ryan Johnston

No 88. Footballer - Gerard Vaughan

NO 89. Sketch for Ned Kelly - Amanda Fuller

NO 90. Woman in Lagoon - Jinx Nolan

No 91. Cherries in a bowl - Peter Blake

No 92. Fountain - Heywood Hill

No 93. Artist and painting - Charles Nodrum

No 94. Death of Constable Scanlon - Anita Taylor

No 95. Untitled (abstract) - David Jaffe

No 96. Digital image - Joe Studholme

No 97. Seated figure and bird - Sally Aitken

No 98. Burke and Wills expedition 'Gray sick' - Gary Sangster

No 99. Kangaroo at Ayers Rock - Pru and Anthony Napolitano

No 100. The Galaxy - Elizabeth Langslow

Instagram