Untitled (Abstract), c. 1939

Sidney Nolan, Untitled (Abstract), c1939, oil on blotting paper, 28.4 x 44.6cm © Sidney Nolan Trust

David Jaffe, former curator, National Gallery of Australia, curator of paintings for the J. Paul Getty Museum California, and Senior Curator, London National Gallery. Specialist on Italian Renaissance art and Rubens.

"‘Untitled (Abstract)’, c.1939 by Nolan is strange in an Australian context because of its formal grid which is truly abstract and could well sit beside works by Mondrian or his British host Ben Nicholson. In fact it was an aberration in his early work. Nolan then developed into an essentially figurative landscape art, in the tradition of the then famous American outback painter Thomas Hart Benton, who had just made the cover of Time Magazine.

When writing his own introduction to his 1949 Leicester Galleries show, Russell Drysdale noted that the battle between the Academics and the Modernists was hard fought. A year later Nolan, a self-proclaimed fellow ' Modernist' followed Drysdale exhibiting in another London gallery (Redfern 1951) a pioneering outback show.

To our eyes they were both painting topographic landscapes with only a passing reference to the flattening of space, which might be read as an affiliation to Surrealism. Cubist Picasso, who was included in the 1949 Herald art show that toured Melbourne and Sydney, had left no impact on either artist. Instead Benton’s vocabulary of abandoned farm machinery, windmills and dead cows skulls is pervasive in Nolan's 'Back of Beyond' drawings of 1954, now on show in the British Museum.

We can only understand Nolan and Drysdale’s perceptions by reading books like Lionel Lindsey’s ‘Addled Art’ (1946), according to which art stops abruptly with Cezanne and Van Gogh; for Lindsey Cubism, Surrealism and Matisse are damned.

It is only with the great late canvasses of the 1980's that Nolan returns to gestural forms on a flat picture plane and so finally rejoins the battle ground with his modernist heroes, which he had precociously touched on in his youth with ‘Abstract’, the Luna Park paintings ,not to mention his early Boy and the Moon c.1939 which so enraged the Melbourne critics. Ironically Nolan pointed to Boy and the Moon when the next generation, including Bret Whitely who on reaching London in 1965 attacked him for not being flat enough. Perhaps this challenge from Whitley, the upstart Sydney painter, triggered Nolan’s vast spray gun responses to paint the gulf country at the Top End of Australia and similar Chinese landscapes, which now look so good in the Australia House in London."

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