Out of the themes of drought and disaster, the arrogant bravery of an outlaw, and the heroism of his countrymen at Gallipoli, Australian painter Sidney Nolan created a mythology for his native land. Before, Nolan, there had been no great explosion of the arts in Australia, which is not surprising given the early struggle for existence in the wilderness. After WWII, there was a new generation of poets who began looking for something beyond the bush ballads that had once been the mainspring of Australian poetry. In painting, there was also an interesting development. The work of men like George Russell Drysdale and William Dobell had a detachment that was a decided break from the imitative canvases of the past; and with Sidney Nolan Australian painting achieved a definite emancipation.
Nolan was an Australian of the Australians. He evoked his talent in harmony with the peculiar environment of his country. Factory worker, farm hand, cook, sign painter, odd-jobber, he was all these things. He knew poverty and the crowded back streets of new cities as well as the immense horizons of the outback. His life was typical of the struggle every sensitive and intelligent Australian boy had in a materialistic environment that turned to beer, betting, and sport for relaxation and rejected as soft and probably bogus any pretensions to culture or art. But, he possessed to the full that sense of nostalgia, of bereftness, of isolation, which up to the 1960′s had been at the root of the Australian approach to life, and not mere imitations of cultural importations from abroad. There was a perception that people had to be tough, perhaps to disguise an inner loneliness. A people without history or past. No ruins. No relics. No past civilizations. No myths. No reassuring sense of the continuity of things.
Nolan, however was not bedeviled by any of these misgivings. He realized that no one is really isolated and that the Australian scene is merely a re-creation of the ancient past. A myth, a continuous dream, explains and animates the human race, and the same hates and loves are with us all the time. It is to the painting of that dream that Nolan devoted his life.
Nolan is best known for his Kelly series on the famous outlaw of that name. Kelly made war upon the government rather than upon individuals and in the letter in which he explained his motives, there is an eloquence and convinced plea of a revolutionary rather than a criminal. Yet a criminal he was without a place in a settled community. To consider him favorably, we must do so on his own terms: a brave and unrepentant misfit , as the avenger of injustice, as one man defying destiny, as the personification of the poet’s idea that an hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name. Nolan’s haunting monolithic figure in the iron mask has the flames of hell on it, but that slit for the eyes is wonderfully expressive of defiance: this is the crisis of the strong man in chaos, and once again the tragedy is beautiful. With his Kelly paintings Nolan began to reach up toward the full range of his special talent, the uninhibited expression of an emotion in paint.
“When I was 17, I fell in love with a sodomite. His eyes were a dazzling blue … and he had the face of an angel. His hands were large and awkward, with dirty nails: a peasant’s hands … and he was one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen … I fell in love with a ghost, an illusion, one I’ve been trying to shake off ever since.”
The words are those of the Australian poet John Tranter, but according to Pearce they accurately describe Nolan’s own lifelong obsession with the same muse. That man was Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud: poetry’s archetypal enfant terrible, French literature̵
equivalent of Lord Byron.
Nolan’s passions have been much explored. His love life reads like an airport novel. The deserted first wife and child. The strange and enduring cuckolding affair with Sunday Reed, frustrated wife of his patron. The marriage to Cynthia, which ended in her suicide and enduring bitterness over his artistic legacy. Peace at last with Mary, sister of Arthur and David Boyd.
But, until now, no one has really explored Nolan’s French connection: his fascination with a flaming comet who burnt himself out by the age of 20 in a creative orgy of absinthe, hashish and scandal, never to write poetry again.
Had anyone else proposed Rimbaud as Nolan’s secret mentor, we would be undertandably suspicious. But Pearce, the highly respected curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, has spent two years assembling the most important Nolan exhibition to be held in this country for 20 years. Read More:http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/the-painter-and-the-poet/2007/10/18/1192300941130.html
…Then one of his fellow students, Howard Matthews, heard Nolan saying he wanted to go to Paris, to escape his working-class life. “Matthews said, ‘You’d like Rimbaud’,” Pearce says. “So Nolan started reading Rimbaud, the model of the bad boy. And Rimbaud was very bad. He was dangerous, incandescent. He turned the whole poetic tradition upside down. Torched everyone. Indulged in drugs [and alcohol] in a very strategic way to discover an alternative world, this mystical state.
“Nolan adored this. It was a model of how he could break away from the suffocating life he thought he had.”
It wasn’t just Rimbaud’s poems that appealed to the young artist but the poet’s deliberately provocative and anarchic personal life.
Famously, the teenage Rimbaud became the lover of the older married poet, Paul Verlaine. Together they scandalised Parisian literary society with bad-boy behaviour. Ultimately – as with so many modern celebrity love affairs – it would end in tragedy and madness, with Verlaine being sentenced to two years in prison for shooting Rimbaud in the wrist – and Rimbaud giving up poetry at the height of his genius. He died in 1891, aged 37.
According to Pearce, Nolan’s enchantment with the life and works of Rimbaud was immediate and enduring. He and Matthews began play-acting, with Nolan cast as Rimbaud and Matthews as Verlaine. They were so eager to escape to Paris that they stowed away on a ship, though they were discovered and put ashore. “They had this manic, desperate need to find this parallel universe, an alternative to the life they had in Melbourne,” Pearce says.( ibid.)