Sidney Nolan, Riverbend, 1966 oil on canvas 152.5 x 122.0 cm
Ian Dungavell is Chief Executive of Highgate Cemetery, Nolan’s last resting place
"My first encounter with Riverbend was, appropriately enough, as an undergraduate at the Australian National University where it used to greet me on every visit to the Chifley Library, the chief resort of art history undergraduates. I say appropriately because Sidney Nolan had been one of the first Creative Arts Fellows at the University in 1965, appointed to add some much-needed cultural fertiliser to the barren Canberra landscape. Though not painted in Canberra it belongs to that period in his life.
When I saw the painting, twenty years later, it was hung on a curved screen wall so that you felt that you could almost walk into it. The landscape struck me. It shimmered with an almost symbolist vagueness. Even with the river lapping at the bottom of the panels, it exuded heat. You could smell those dry summer days when the sun lifts the oils from the eucalypts and scents the air.
Inevitably people compare Riverbend with the water lilies cycle at the Orangerie in Paris, but Monet has none of the intensity of Nolan. Gradually you notice the figures among the trees and realise that an epic story is playing out. I was surprised to find I much preferred Riverbend."