Sidney Nolan, Head, c.1964, oil on board, 122 x 91.5cm, Collection of the Sidney Nolan Trust, © Sidney Nolan Trust.
Celia Johnson is lecturer at Hereford College of Arts, for the BA (Hons) & MA Fine Art courses.
"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 , 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."