Heads or Tails…
The thing about Sidney Nolan is that whether painting animals or people - he gets down to the nitty-gritty of their soul. I first came across artist Nolan through his second wife’s book, One Traveller’s Africa – about the two of them travelling together: Sidney and Cynthia. Published in 1965 by Shenval Press Limited, the book has several colour plates of Sidney Nolan’s work – mostly animal portraits from the African travels that Cynthia describes. This was the first time I had come across his art.
Cynthia writes about his preparation before travelling to Africa: ‘…some months ago he [Sidney] had shown me a passage in The Eagle’s Nest [by Ruskin]: “In representing beasts, man has to think of them essentially with their skins on and with their souls in them. He is to know how they are spotted, wrinkled, furred and feathered; and what the look of them is in the eyes; what grasp, cling, or trot or pat, is in their paws or claws… He is to take every sort of view of them in fact except one, the Butcher’s view… the knowledge of bones and meat, of joint and muscle is more of a hindrance than a help.”’
Cynthia finds his intentions change when confronted with the ‘real thing’: ‘Sidney’s intention, which in London had been to have a good rough romp with a few lions, had changed. He was now inordinately respectful. “Did you notice,” I [Cynthia] asked, “how their eyes haze and become extraordinarily menacing while their bodies remain entirely relaxed? And the hypnotic way they observed us by looking through us?” Sidney replied absentmindedly, “Yes, what I’ve got to do is animate hides.”
About their relationship with the animals, Cynthia says: ‘I found we were not looking at the wild animals from the point of view of animal lovers, not as sportsmen, nor yet in the old marvellous way of the Lascaux cave painters who saw them as a procession of non-individuals to be painted for reasons of magic, for aid in obtaining food and hides. Rather we seemed to regard them as individuals who were inquiring of us as much as we inquired of them, and from whom we had a great deal to learn.’
Quoting her husband’s reaction to the animal life: ’I begin to see animals as some kind of document, something to do with myself; at the same time I feel that Africa’s boiling and bubbling and very violent. Somehow I’ve got to show the relationship of the living things to the living continent.’
Experiencing the living art of the animal world they found parallels with their own art world. For example, the Thompson’s gazelles, ‘…were the colour of summer grass and looked particularly well moving over burned stubble or through the thorn-scrub… Across their flank was a slash of dark chocolate; one was aware of it before seeing the enclosing shape. “Just the way,” Sidney said, “a proper painting hits you.”’
In the book Cynthia presents Sidney Nolan as someone who thinks, lives and breathes his art; someone who not only studied art history, but who actively learnt from artists who have gone before and then created from his own first hand emotional reaction inspired by children’s art. His paintings appear to be a raw and visceral. Yet from reading this book it seems that he achieves this through careful reflection about his personal connection with the world in which each animal survives and thrives.
And so it was through this understanding of his work that I approached the latest Sidney Nolan exhibition, Heads, at “The Rodd” in Presteigne, Powys. Part of the adventure of going to this exhibition in the Welsh borders was to see the place where Sidney Nolan lived and worked with his third wife, Mary. Set in a lovely rural landscape, housed in a refurbished Jacobean barn, the exhibition showed the same informed, thoughtful yet raw, emotional responses – but this time for human individuals in the Australian outback, Africa and the UK. On arrival I was a bit worried about the geese grazing in the field that is also the car park; my friend Jane, who drove me there - and has kept geese in the past - told me that this particular breed would be alright. True to her word, they simply continued to mind their own business, waggle their tails and graze the grass – allowing us to get out of the car and explore the grounds and exhibition in peace. Phew!
That was last month, August 2014. This month, providing the opportunity to get into the heads of local artists, and with the potential for being an adventure in its own right, is our own Hertfordshire Open Studios, from 6 September 2014. Enjoy!