#Nolan 100

No 97. Seated figure and bird - Sally Aitken


No 97. Seated figure and bird - Sally Aitken

At first glance this Nolan work is neither grand nor “iconic”. It doesn’t bear his signature Ripolin paint shimmering across the surface, nor the iron mask of Ned Kelly appearing in the gumtrees. (Or, come to think of it, even digitized onto bronzed bodies as per #Nolan96 on Bondi Beach).

Instead this rapidly sketched wax-crayoned figure, whose shape suggests an intensity of purpose, captures a moment of quiet study. In the corner there’s an opposite, a bird in flight – a rush of imagination perhaps? Or could it be freedom of thought?

This smallish work on paper, literally one of tens of thousands Nolan produced in his lifetime, came up for auction last month when a number of important works from Lady Nolan’s Estate went under the hammer. As the art world is fond of saying the picture has ‘great provenance’ because it’s a work that Nolan himself retained until his death in 1992 before it passed to his late wife Mary, who equally held onto it until her death last year. So the little work must have meant something to the artist. The filmmaker in me wonders what?

Now, (having been slightly swept up in the excitement of a crowded room at my first art auction) the little work means a very great deal to me. When I first saw it, I was taken. I immediately thought: this is a good omen. I saw myself in the art, meaning, I immediately likened it to what I’m about to do, studiously immerse myself in a world of Nolan in the process of preparing for a film about him I’ll make early next year.

I imagined myself as that figure, hunched at a desk with mind whirring, mulling over the extraordinary contradictions of Nolan’s life and grappling with his sheer output. I saw myself trying to pull together all the disparate elements and write a compelling script capturing his vigorous process of moving at absolute speed, (“a restless energy” as art scholar Edmund Capon says) to lay down an uncluttered visual impulse, the need to keep innovating. I envisaged my notes laid out in front of me detailing Nolan’s desire to emulate his hero poet, Arthur Rimbaud’s maxim – dérèglement de tous les sens – a derangement of all the senses in order to enter an alternate universe.

In short, I saw myself in that alternate universe in full-on film frenzy preparation mode.

What I didn’t know until trawling through some archive a few weeks ago was that Nolan captured himself in the same exact position.

Seated Figure with Bird is actually a self-portrait.

In watching the black and white 1960 film, I noticed the camera had captured Nolan seated in his studio in the same pose, furiously drawing paper work after paper work at his desk, pausing for thought between each impression, and looking up momentarily before commencing the next sketch. I could almost see the bird’s wings beating his next moment of inspiration.

The frontispiece quote in Andrew Thurley’s guide to Nolan’s Adelaide Ladies has Sidney saying: “Why do you think I date everything I do? It’s because it isn’t enough to know the artist’s work. You also have to know when he made them, why, how and under what circumstances.” Amen. I hope ours will be a new story of the why and how and genesis of great art. Less the retelling of a biography and more the capturing of an essence of one of the 20th century’s most influential and ironically, (given the amount of literature devoted to his life), under-examined artists.

Back to the 1960 archive film – from the close shot of Nolan at his desk, the camera slowly retreats from his studio, resulting in a long shot that peeks through the door to his room while Nolan (still busy at work) narrates in voice over: “Here I sit in my shirt sleeves scratching away at a desk, and as an Aborigine leaves his mark on a cliff, both of us beginning a story of which neither of us knows the end.”

At this point, the task of undertaking a definitive film about Sidney Nolan is completely daunting. I certainly don’t know its end but I’m inspired and excited to begin to mark the cliff.”

Award-winning documentary director, Sally Aitken (https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/the-screen-guide/p/sally-aitken/32220/#ccTall), will helm a major new film on Sidney Nolan's art and life in 2018. Seeking to tell a new story and include many new revelations of Nolan’s innovations and inspirations, the documentary is being made for BBC and ABC arts and will be produced by Flaming Star Films who are based in Nolan’s original home city of Melbourne.

Sidney Nolan, Seated Figure and Bird, c.1957, mixed media on paper, 30 x 25 cm. © Sidney Nolan Trust 

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