Linking Ancient Landscapes
When the idea of having a Nolan Centenary event at the Burren Art College in Co. Clare, at the southern side of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland, first emerged it seemed to be just a nice way of cementing some connections.
Here was this small art school, paradoxically started only three years after Sidney's untimely death, situated in the same collection of villages from which his ancestors were thought to have emigrated to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. What a fine excuse to show some of Nolan's pictures in an area that he had been emotionally close to but had never had a serious exhibition in.
As things developed, though, it became clear that the significance is far greater. Firstly, there is the exhibition itself. The works assembled by Anthony Plant and David Ferry (the newly elected President of RE, the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers), from the SNT collection turn out to have been made immediately after Nolan visited the Burren in 1987, hoping to rebuild a cottage said to have been his family's. The extraordinary and disturbing images, almost entirely monochrome, draw on themes that are referenced throughout Nolan's work: prehistoric art, the earth and the moon, the collision of male and female, the unforgiving forces of nature. They come together in the austere hues of the denuded rocks that characterise the Burren hills. The pictures have never been shown together before, as far as we know.
To have a world premiere Nolan exhibition, twenty-six years after his death, in the landscape that inspired the work is remarkable enough. As we gathered for the opening and the symposium that followed, though, the echoes grew louder. It appeared that Sidney Nolan and Michael and Mary Greene had been inventing their projects in parallel – the Greenes taking a ruined 15th century tower and neglected farmyard on the side of an isolated Irish hill near Ballyvaughan and turning it into the most unlikely of experimental art schools; Sidney and Mary Nolan taking a run-down 17th century manor house with dilapidated farm buildings on the Welsh border near Presteigne and turning it into a progressive centre for artists and musicians. The sad thing is that, while they seem to have been aware of each other's plans, Sidney and Michael never had a chance to put them together.
This exhibition now gives us that chance; to build up a relationship that goes some way to fulfilling the vision of Nolan and his brother-in-law, Arthur Boyd, for a triangular link between The Rodd, The Burren and Bundanon (in New South Wales) – all of them dedicated to inspiring new generations of creative artists by placing practitioners in evocative landscapes and letting their minds run free. It also can be a spur to reinvigorating Nolan's place in Ireland's cultural life, with Co. Clare, the cities of Galway and Athlone and the National Gallery of Ireland all thinking again about how to brainstorm the opportunities.
Oh – and the sun shone, the lecture theatre had a good crowd for the symposium, some visiting American students were mildly bemused, and the Australian Ambassador to Ireland enjoyed an afternoon without having to wear a tie.
Images from top: Sidney Nolan, Celtic Image (Newgrange), 1987, 122.5x152.5cm, enamel spray paint on linen canvas, © Sidney Nolan Trust; Simon Mundy at the opening of the exhibiton; Simon Mundy, Ambassador Richard Andrews, Mary Hawkes-Greene, David Ferry and Conor McGrady.