Self portrait in youth, 1986

Sidney Nolan, Self-portrait in Youth, 1986, Enamel spray on canvas, 1830 mm x 1605 mm x 38 mm, Royal Academy of Arts

Barry Pearce is Head Curator at The Art Gallery of New South Wales

"Sidney Nolan’s manner of seizing an image might have earned him a similar reference to his contemporary Willem de Kooning as a slipping glimpser. With his eye’s aperture Nolan would blink before a motif, turn quickly away, and embrace a prey that may never have been snared with an orthodox gaze; like the shapes and glimmers of a spirit world snapped by ghost hunters. Nolan, swift, impatient, preferred this process over time-honoured construction through drawing and a slower rationale of layering, vouchsafing him an original place in the story of modern Australian painting.

He had discovered a counterpart in the hallucinatory visions of the nineteenth century French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud in the late 1930s. Rimbaud became disheartened when he felt unable to make the ultimate transition into his parallel universe, and gave up poetry altogether at the age of twenty. Nolan came as close as possible to such an idea of disembodied transition in the spray paintings of Chinese mountains and mists and pure abstractions made during the last decade of his life at The Rodd.

Amongst them was the remarkable Self portrait in youth, of 1986, interpreted by some as a reflection of the artist’s fading reputation. However to discern the intention of this ambiguous, valedictory spectre of himself, attired perhaps in the long Irish coat with fur collar Nolan so loved to wear in winter, we need to ponder an earlier version of 1943, in which horizontal stripes of colour on his forehead, palette and brushes like weapons of intent, emanate the stance of a rebel. Four decades later the stripes have become vertical, shifted to the periphery, the rebel in retreat. It is as if the artist has walked through the portal of a Jean Cocteau mirror, turning back to us whispering that he had always, like his hero Rimbaud, only ever wanted to become immersed in the other side."

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