Women and Billabong, 1957

Sidney Nolan, Women and Billabong, 1957, polyvinyl acetate paint on hardboard 1524 × 1219 mm, Tate, © Sidney Nolan Trust

Anthony Plant was the Director of the Sidney Nolan Trust for 20 years until his retirement in 2018.

"Having been immersed in Sidney Nolan and his work for the last 18 years and meticulously tutored during that time by Mary Nolan, I really did think that of all people I had seen most of his art and artefacts - tiny scraps of ink splattered tracing paper, the endless panels of his Snake and Shark murals, piles of polaroid photographs, yearly note books and diaries, annotated books, bottled foetuses and an elephant and a giraffe skull. I had already chosen a painting that I wished to write about. A small early work of someone killing a chicken with the drops of blood, complete with shadows, caught in the instant before they hit the ground. Typically Nolan. Addressing the gory and potentially difficult but painted with a degree of sensitivity and insight that, on face value, renders the subject seemingly harmless.
As with most Nolan works, however, there is a sense of the ‘impending’. And it was this sense that completely overwhelmed and shocked me on seeing ‘Women and Billabong’ at Pallant House. I know the story of Mrs Fraser. I know Sidney’s paintings of this period. I have seen photographs of this painting but none of this had prepared me for the experience of being so close to it. The tiny figure of Mrs Fraser is the epitome of vulnerability, dwarfed in a menacing landscape of sinisterly succulent foliage. It is not possible to describe how delicately the woman is painted – it has to be seen. But it is very clear she has been caught in just one second of respite, like the drops of blood. And that time will soon restart to deliver all that impending and encroaching menace.

Maybe this is Nolan’s secret and what makes his painting so compelling. He plays with the imagination. He constantly invites the viewer to engage. Like reading a novel or a poem his paintings give the framework and inspiration but it is for the viewer to embellish it into their own world."

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