Crane, 1977

Sidney Nolan, Crane, 1977, crayon on paper

Brian Adams OAM, Australian television producer and author. Ten published books include biographic studies of Sidney Nolan - "Sidney Nolan: Such is Life" and "Sidney Nolan's Odyssey: A Life". Also biographies of Dame Joan Sutherland - "La Stupenda", "Portrait of an Artist: biography of Sir William Dobell" and the 18th century botanist Sir Joseph Banks - "The Flowering of the Pacific".

"For someone who had the very good fortune to be associated with Sidney Nolan for thirty years, both professionally and socially, and being familiar with much of his prolific output, selecting a favourite is difficult without gravitating to one of his chefs-d’oeuvre such as Kelly, Mrs Fraser or the monumental Anzac series. With two international TV documentaries (Nolan at Sixty and Such is Life) together with a brace of biographical studies (Such is Life and Sidney Nolan’s Odyssey) I’ve decided to take the reverse direction by choosing a deceptively simple sketch from the 1977 tele-retrospective filmed on worldwide locations.

In Kenya, Sidney recalled his “African Journey” paintings which became Nolan’s first selling exhibition in London in 1963 with purchases by the Royal Family at a private preview. The public found an affinity with the pictures, however most critics regarded them as something of a fraud by abandoning his Australian roots and replacing kangaroos with zebras and koalas with apes. Eric Newton even suggested, presumably tongue in cheek, that the artist was a modern-day Baron Munchausen and fabricated his whole show without ever setting foot on the African continent. But fellow painter Francis Bacon complimented the artist personally and he and Kenneth Clark (who subsequently wrote and narrated Nolan at Sixty in 1977) were not among the detractors.

Clark commented for my film: ‘He didn’t paint the African landscape, but the people and animals. He painted monkeys looking like old, philosophical men, and old men and women looking like monkeys. He wanted to show the stoicism of survival’.

Nothing illustrated that perceptive observation better than an unexpected incident that happened when filming Nolan, with sketchbook and crayons to hand, sitting on a river bank close to Nairobi drawing a couple of handsome blue cranes, a metre high, feeding in the shallows. Suddenly they were attacked by a predatory crocodile which appeared from nowhere and one of them ended up in its mouth as a flurry of blue feathers splattered with blood, while its partner watched the tragedy disconsolately from the safety of the bank.

Nolan’s image of the violent encounter was captured in less than two minutes using brown, blue and red oil crayons, including a sinister red dot for the assailant’s beady eye. Later, I had that page from the sketchbook framed to place on the wall of my study as a reminder of the times we spent together and how a consummate artist could achieve with the simplest of sketches the message Kenneth Clark alluded to, not only about the stoicism of survival for all creatures great and small in Africa, but also as the universal truth Sidney also enshrined in the spirit of Ned Kelly’s final utterance before being hanged at Melbourne Gaol: ‘Such is Life!’ "

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