Friday 28 January 2011

Sidney Nolan and Ian Fairweather

Two Australian artists with significant reputations are Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) and Ian Fairweather (1891-1974).

Nolan remains in the eyes of Australians one of their finest artists. He was a painter who could encapsulate how Australians feel about their country. His work has grown in regard and become even more emblematic of place than Russell Drysdale’s. Nolan’s art is, arguably, more searingly accurate and less decorative than the work of Brett Whitley. Nolan’s early paintings pinpoint the larrikin nature of Australia’s self-perception.

Ian Fairweather may be significantly less well known as an Australian artist, but he is as deserving of a major reputation as Nolan is. Among curators, Fairweather has always been understood as one of Australia’s key twentieth century artists. He has the status of an ‘inner outsider’, much like their emigrant New Zealander, Rosalie Gascoigne.

Whenever I have studied exhibitions of Nolan’s paintings, I have always felt his best work dates from his early years. The period between 1942 and 1955; with his wonderfully and deliberately awkward St Kilda pier paintings (1945), Ned Kelly series (1946-1947), the Central Australia series (1950) and the astounding image of Mrs Fraser from 1947 (Queensland Art Gallery). That single painting is an anthropomorphic spectacle. It is also an affirmation of Nolan’s genius for looking at how an insecure history is part of Australia’s immigrant heart. Nolan painted avidly for another 45 years, but few of those later works have the raunchy anxiety oozing from his earlier paintings.

Sidney Nolan had a lifelong friendship with Albert Tucker, whom he affectionately called ‘Bert’. Tucker knowingly called Nolan, ‘Ned’. The Chartwell collection holds a fascinating Nolan crayon and pencil drawing from about 1954 of Ned Kelly physically amalgamated with his horse. Nolan and horse drawn as the one being. Kelly may have been well known as a horse stealer but here he is part horse and part human. Nolan may well be showing us his own doppelganger as Ned Kelly. After producing his 1946-1947 series, the painter could not escape identification with Kelly. It must have been a trial to be famous for paintings that you began at 29 and completed when you were 30.

Ian Fairweather is Australia’s archetypal bohemian genius. He had more knowledge of Asia and its culture than perhaps any other Australian artist of his generation. He was a tough man, not in personality but in stamina. He was itinerant and he often lived in rough conditions. Yet, Fairweather’s paintings are amongst the most sensitive ever created in Australia. He adored the human figure, especially the Buddha and other celestial beings. In Nebula from the Chartwell Collection, what appears as first to be an impenetrable network slowly realises itself into a complex image of organic forms. Fairweather was never an abstract artist and his images are always tied into reality.

Sidney Nolan
Ned Kelly circa 1954
Crayon and pencil
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Ian Fairweather
Nebula 1963
synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard laid on composition board
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

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