Self-Portrait, 1988

Sidney Nolan (1917‒1992), Self-Portrait, 1988, oil on composition board (121.5 x 91.5 cm); National Portrait Gallery, Canberra; Gift of The Hon. R. L. Hunter, QC, 2006. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. 2006.3

Angus Trumble, Director of National Portrait Gallery, Australia.

"By the time he painted this self-portrait in 1988, the artist rejoiced in the style and title of Sir Sidney Nolan, OM, AC, CBE, RA. In the year of the bicentenary of European settlement of the continent “Nolan,” as he signs himself here, was by far the most eminent living Australian artist, one of relatively few who achieved and sustained an international reputation in the last century—yet he had for decades settled permanently in Britain. The previous year Nolan had celebrated his seventieth birthday. This generated a flurry of celebratory media attention and events. Most notably, in June 1987, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne launched its Sidney Nolan, Landscapes & Legends: A Retrospective Exhibition: 1937–1987, which later toured to Sydney, Perth, and Adelaide. Also that year Brian Adams published his biography Sidney Nolan: Such is Life and released a documentary film of the same title. Nolan’s stature as a public figure had never been higher. What, then, are we to make of Nolan’s present vision of himself? The smudged inky blues, pinks and subtle browns and greys are characteristic of the artist’s late style. The face is elusive, hazy, veiled, with the head apparently hovering uncertainly between the profile and three-quarter views. The left eye is occluded— partly obscured by his spectacles. The artist’s gaze is, at the very least, averted—as much from himself as from the viewer. Ultimately, the painting is ambiguous, seeming, like all Nolan’s self-portraits, to allude simultaneously to the mask-like character of his public persona, but also to his more complex, certainly introspective poetic imagination. Any suggestion of sculptural monumentality he brings to his own, larger than life-sized head and shoulders seems to be gently mocked by the nervous stripey necktie so tightly knotted at his throat. As my predecessor the late Andrew Sayers has written, “To some extent the final self-portrait of 1988 is an address to those critics who saw him as having achieved nothing of greatness after Kelly. Or perhaps it was addressed to those, like his one-time friend Patrick White, who mocked what they saw as the artist’s incongruous adoption of the mask of rebellious Kelly and the cloak of English public success."

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