Happy birthday, Sir Sid

Now and again art clips you round the ear and yells, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

It happens to me once or twice a year, and I’m lucky, I see and hear a lot of the stuff. It happened yesterday, in the unlikely surroundings of the Australian High Commission where there are 20 paintings by Sidney Nolan being exhibited from today until May 5.
These pictures have never been seen in public before. He was extraordinarily prolific and periodically rang up the London store where most of the pictures were kept, saying he would be in town and wanted to see this, this and that, and would turn up as appointed and spend two or three hours communing. 

But these are ones he kept by him at his remote farmhouse hideway at The Rodd in Powys, and in these 20 canvases is 40 years of work that swirls from surreal to abstract to landscape to portrait. One of the most eerie and moving is Head (Ned Kelly): if Sir Sid is known for anything these days it’s his Ned Kelly pictures – he was fascinated by Australian legends – but Kelly’s head is always encased in an iron helmet; not this one (pictured). More alarming from a couple of years before is Head (Gallipoli), the rotting bonce of a dead Australian soldier whose craggy features are somehow reminiscent of the artist himself. There is a tiny painting from his early attempts to get his thoughts onto canvas, and there are some of the giant spray abstracts, 10 feet by 15 feet, that he was painting in the 1980s towards the end of his life, sometimes at a rate of three a day, with the canvas on the floor of his Elizabethan barn while he was hanging from the rafters by a jackstay, a spray can in each hand.
Tomorrow would be Sir Sid’s 100th birthday and this little show is part of it. There is already an admirable exhibition of his painting in Britain at Pallant House in Chichester - he lived here for most of the last 40 years of his life – but this one is personal, “Sidney’s very personal musings” as Anthony Plant, who runs the Sydney Nolan Trust (which owns The Rodd now and 3,800 of his pictures), puts it.
The trust’s chairman, David Lipsey, hopes the year will rehabilitate Nolan’s reputation which never recovered from his shoving off to the Marches away from the London scene in 1983: too many young art lovers have never heard of him, even Australians. His friend the poet Simon Mundy has written a new biography and will talk about him at his grave in Highgate Cemetery on Tuesday (to find out more about what’s on in this Nolan year go to www.sidneynolantruist.org). Surprisingly there is to be no major retrospective exhibition, the calendars of the Tate and Royal Academy were already full when thoughts were turned to it, but his studio is to be opened for the first time next month at The Rodd, with exhibitions in the barn he painted in. You’ll need to really want to go, it’s not easy, but well worth it when you do. You’ll know why if you duck into the Australian High Commission in The Strand over the next three weeks.


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