Seated Figure and Bird, c. 1957

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

Sally Aitken is an Award-winning documentary director

“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 Nolan 96 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.”

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