Self Portrait, 1986

Sidney Nolan, Self portrait, 1986, spray paint on canvas, 153 x 123 cm, Collection of the Sidney Nolan Trust, © Sidney Nolan Trust

Oliver McCall is Exhibitions Assistant at Ikon Gallery.

"I’ll admit that until this year I’d never heard of Sidney Nolan. My first encounter with his work came shortly after I joined the exhibitions team at Ikon, Birmingham. One intensely grey February morning I made a trip, along with Ikon’s Director and Exhibitions Manager, to the Welsh border and The Rodd, now home to the Sidney Nolan Trust. We arrived to a cosy welcome – ushered in to one of the ancient outbuildings to a restorative cup of tea, and biscuits. It felt quite National Trust.

The quintessentially English setting contrasted strikingly with the works we had come to see. Standing in the former grain barn surrounded by a multitude of Nolan’s large scale spray-painted portraits was a real pleasure; the bright oranges recalling Australian heat, the vivid greens, pinks, purples and blues looking as fresh as if they had been sprayed onto the canvases the previous day.

One portrait in particular stood out - not housed with the rest, but kept in Nolan’s medieval barn-cum-studio – Nolan’s self-portrait. Now hanging at Ikon, this brooding image remains for me one of the most enigmatic in our exhibition.

Here Nolan uses spray paint to dramatic effect. The swathe of electric blue gives the impression that his body is emerging phantasmagorically from the surrounding darkness. In contrast with many of the other works in the exhibition, particularly those depicting Nolan’s friends and sources of inspiration dating from 1982, his body appears more solid and somehow more isolated. Gory red lines like ritual markings cover his face and neck, underlining heavy eyes, running past his downcast mouth. Most unusually, Nolan has struck through his eyes with a single line of black spray paint, disrupting his own gaze. Perhaps this was an act of self-criticism. Perhaps, as has been suggested, it was in response to unfavourable reviews of his work of that time. Why would the artist scratch out his own eyes like that? That is part of the mystery of this portrait."

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