Next year should see another arm-wrestle over the reputation of Sidney Nolan with a significant retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Nolan has always divided opinion. On one side of the table are those ancestors of genius, the ‘my kid could have done that’ brigade. Squaring them off are those who see him as an arist with an imagination like liquid mercury and the most significant non-indgenous painter that Australia has ever seen. I guess you can tell whose side I’m on.
The barbs against Nolan are many: too prolific, too many sloppy pictures, too many themes, can’t draw, can’t paint. It’s not just traditionlists who poke the stick, many lovers of the now roll their eyes at the sound of his name. Nolan’s use of irony is so well crafted, so porous to the emotions of fear, regret, and to the echos of myth, that his work can look too obvious to some viewers. If you like your art ‘too cool for school’ then the memory etched face of a Galipoli soldier isn’t likely to be your thing.
And then there’s the art market. For a while after his death Nolan’s prolific output, combined with the relatively small size of the Australian population, seemed to suggest that there would be no end to the availablity of distinctive works. I would suggest that those days are long gone. One colleague, searching hard for works in the U.K., told of a conversation with a local dealer, the gist of which was, ‘and if the Americans get hold of him.’