#Nolan 100

No 79. Boy and the moon - Natalie Wilson

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No 79. Boy and the moon - Natalie Wilson

It has been likened to a lavatory seat; to the rising plume of debris thrust into the atmosphere following an atomic blast; the tree of life; and the emblematic Rising Sun Flag used by feudal warlords in Japan during the Edo period. Readings of this deceptively unassuming image are numerous.

While working as an illustrator and sign-writer in the mid-1930s, the young Sidney Nolan absorbed the imagery and words of the world’s greats, garnered through his untutored study of art history and literature in the collections of the State Library of Victoria. Consequently, there is conjecture about a probable source of inspiration for this enigmatic work: the poetic works of Rainer Maria Rilke or Arthur Rimbaud, or from artists such as William Blake, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse.

Literally, the painting is a mass of mustard-yellow — ovoid in form with a stalk-like protrusion at its base — silhouetted against a ground of blue-black. The golden orb fills almost three-quarters of the picture plane. This distinctive head/tree shape is one that Nolan reinvented continually over his long career: as the ‘original’ painting Boy and the moon (later named Moonboy by Nolan’s patron, lover and muse Sunday Reed), first exhibited at the 2nd Annual Contemporary Art Society exhibition in 1940; in the lyrical series of ‘figure and tree’ works of 1941, including Woman and tree (or Garden of Eden) in the collection of the Heide Museum of Modern Art; and through the ‘Moonboy mural’, writ large on the roof of the Reed’s cottage at Heide during World War II, subsequently removed at the insistence of air-force intelligence, fearing it a target for Japanese bombers.

Two decades later, in 1962, Nolan would repeat this grand gesture, reborn on a momentous scale, when he designed the sets and costumes for Kenneth MacMillan’s production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at London’s Royal Opera House. A spectacular feature of the ballet was Nolan’s design for the backcloth to Act 2: The sacrifice. Rising from the stage on a background of deep indigo blue blazed a shimmering sphere — shifting hue from whitish-silver to ox-blood red — against which the dancers soared, the totemic form of Moonboy presiding over the final climax of the ballet.

Nolan himself claimed that this semi-abstract shape had no emotional content, that the idea came simply from observing his friend’s head one night while sitting on a bench in Melbourne’s seaside suburb of St Kilda, as a full moon rose above the horizon (the work is also known as Portrait of John Sinclair at St Kilda).

Yet I can’t help but be reminded of William Blake’s frontispiece to his illuminated book, The Song of Los, in which a glowing sphere emanates from a darkened space. Created in 1795, during the period following the American War of Independence and the outbreak of revolutionary activity in London, The Song of Los is one of a series of books known as the Continental Prophecies. In Blake’s invented mythology, Los represented imagination, his purpose to create his own system, distinct from all others. So too, in a time of global conflict and the conservative oppression of 1940s Australia, Nolan’s conception of Moonboy can be viewed as a defining moment, when the artist began to construct his own visual language, culminating in the idiosyncratic apparition of a cut-out black square infiltrating the Australian landscape: the mythological figure of the helmeted Ned Kelly that Nolan would make his own five years later.”


Natalie Wilson, Curator, Australian & Pacific Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/

Boy and the moon [Moonboy] circa 1939-40, oil on canvas, mounted on composition board, 73.3 x 88.2 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1976, NGA 76.560, © Sidney Nolan Trust

William Blake, Song of Los, 1795, British Museum, 1856,0209.409

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

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