Sidney Nolan was an innovater.
I first met Australian artist, Sir Sidney Nolan at the old Hungry Horse Gallery in Paddington Sydney in 1964. I was just out of art school and had joined Betty O’Neill’s “stable” of artists. This was the time of the relative decline of the importance of the art societies and the rise of the commercial galleries. Her pioneer gallery was soon to be taken over by Kym Bonython who became the “Lorenzo the Magnificent” of Australian art patronage. I was impressed to meet the famous senior member of Betty’s stable, Sidney Nolan, at that time resident overseas, on one of his visits to Australia. I was enthralled by his work, especially The Ned Kelly series. In my mind Nolan is the Shakespeare of Australian Art. His characters enter and exit on an elusively enamelled stage. Everything in movement. He had, through sheer fluency and invention, touched on the epic nature of the surreal history of his country. He was happy to talk to a boy just out of school on the beginning of his journey and we discussed matters of mutual interest. He had explored various media, including Ripolin, which was a commercial paint product he had found that suited him. He did not confine himself to brushes but used anything to hand including silk stockings and windscreen wipers. I was astonished by his candour. I recall that he was totally open minded about the possibilities of a painting. At the art school we had restricted ourselves to the traditional tools of the artist; canvas, brushes and artist oil colours and the study of the great masters. To my embarrassment Betty dragged out a few examples of my work. He was encouraging to a young painter and we talked for ages before he was whisked away to a function by Betty O’Neill.
A kindly smile, A quizzical look into the distance – and he was gone. I found him to be, by nature, a shy reflective person. But like Shakespeare here was a keen observer who had the gift of turning the simple stuff of his local environment into the universal. He changed Australian art forever. And made a deep impression on me.
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