Sidney Nolan: early experiments.
"I still know no painter who tried as many wondrous gimmicks as did Nolan. Kaleidoscopes, microscopes, stereoscopes, horoscopes, these in luminous paint!—feathers printing themselves white on architect’s blue paper like cirrus clouds, cutouts, blackouts, handouts, any and every conceivable approach of eye and mind."
Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s the young artist Sidney Nolan made a sustained, conscious effort to be avant-garde and ‘modern’. In 1938 he attracted the patronage of progressive Melbourne art benefactors John and Sunday Reed, and Heide, their semi-rural property in Melbourne’s outer east, became his creative laboratory. It was a conducive, stimulating environment and buoyed by the Reeds’ financial and emotional support, Nolan was able to experiment freely. His background in the commercial art sector and admiration for innovative European modernists such as Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, had made him highly receptive to the possibilities of new materials, processes and imagery. Working instinctively and prolifically, he trialled a remarkable range of unorthodox media and supports—from industrial gloss paints on roof slates to unadulterated boot polish on card. In tandem he devised a distinctive visual lexicon that was equally outside the mainstream, and counter to the more common pattern of artistic development, gradually shifted from abstraction to figuration. As these experiments crystallised he produced his first, youthful masterpieces.
Nolan’s willingness to forgo traditional artists’ materials and approaches in favour of explorative methods and imagery was in large part informed by the commercial emphasis of his schooling and early employment. From the age of ten he attended Brighton Technical School, which was established in 1922 to provide basic training in trade subjects such as leatherwork, architectural drafting, carpentry and metalwork. Progressing to the Design and Crafts Department of the Prahran Technical College in 1932 at fifteen, he studied lettering, jewellery manufacture and carpentry, combined with a modicum of life drawing and academic oil painting. In the same period he developed an obsession with reading, demonstrating a remarkable autodidactic propensity—particularly for poetry and philosophy— that would fuel his creative practice throughout his life. As John Reed later observed, ‘It is, in fact, almost impossible for me to imagine Nolan without a book in his hand, beside his bed, or within reach as he painted ... In this sense, Nolan’s art was always profound’. [2'
Nolan’s first paid position after Prahran College was with Solafex, a small business that manufactured illuminated glass signs of the type seen in traditional pub windows and brewery wagons. His role was to paint designs onto the glass in transparent enamels using lead foil stencils and ridged aluminium and he came ‘to know a little bit about glass and the way to paint on it’ . By the time he left, after around eighteen months, he had pilfered a substantial quantity of transparent enamel paint, with which he produced a number of paintings at Heide several years later.  One of these, Window: Girl and Flowers (1942), is made from a domestic timber window frame enclosing six small glass panels that form a sequence of views of a female figure (most probably Sunday Reed) in the landscape. Recalling negatives in a filmstrip, the monochromatic panels utilise cinematic devices such as close-ups and long shots and cohere to convey a sense of narrative. The work has a slightly voyeuristic quality, for the viewer is effectively watching the figure through a real window.
Nolan also produced a thematically related series of paintings on repurposed roof slates, which he found made an ideal semi-absorbent matt surface for both enamels and inks. The figure with flowers theme recurs in these works, along with angels, lovers, hands, and ‘tingling’ feet—romantic imagery inspired by the fifth Duino Elegy of poet Rainier Maria Rilke who, in his use of symbols to probe inner emotional experiences, strongly influenced Nolan’s approach during this period. Other glass compositions include a suite of diminutive paintings made in 1942 on recycled plate negatives of portrait photographs—a resourceful and innovatory idea at the time. It is possible that Nolan was aware of Sydney artist John Power’s abstract paintings on unframed glass exhibited in Paris in 1938—or perhaps Louis Marcoussis’ cubist compositions on glass, some of which were reproduced in the 1920 and 1930s in Cahiers d’Art in, a magazine readily available to him in the Reeds’ well-stocked library at Heide.  For both Nolan and Power the glass functioned purely as a transparent and therefore unusual surface on which to apply paint and inscribe marks to achieve a range of interesting visual effects. Accordingly, Nolan’s images bear no visual link to the photographic subjects beneath them. They do, however, depict leitmotifs that persist throughout his oeuvre: for example, a summarised back view of a female nude; the latticed iron girder structure of the Big Dipper roller coaster at Luna Park, St Kilda; and a simplified, rounded shape that resembles both a tree and a head and neck in outline.  This last form derives from his landmark painting Boy and the Moon (1939–40), and reappears again in other compositions, including Woman and Tree (Garden of Eden) (1941) and Arabian Tree (1943).
Nolan’s pioneering use of glass negatives, and the cinematic qualities of Window: Girl and Flowers, suggest the lingering influence of Vernon Jones, his employer from 1933 to 1937 in the art unit of the Fayrefield Hat Company in Abbotsford. Jones, an advocate of modern design, produced early animated cartoons and had a keen interest in contemporary photography, reputedly collaborating with leading Melbourne photographer Athol Shmith.  Despite taking night classes at the National Gallery School Nolan lacked skill in academic figure drawing, so Jones assigned him to practical tasks such as constructing signs and window displays, painting lettering and backgrounds, and cutting out cardboard heads to model the hats. He showed an aptitude for spray painting, again using stencils and layers of colour, and stockpiled left-over paint and other materials for his personal use.  A series of minimal abstract air brush illustrations for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which he was reading at the time, dates to this interval, testimony to his proficiency with the spray gun.
At Fayrefield Hats Nolan enjoyed access to Jones’ collection of current international art and design publications, including the American men’s fashion magazine Apparel Arts and The Studio, an illustrated fine and decorative arts journal from England. In these types of magazines he may have seen advertisements for Ripolin, the industrial paint touted for both house interiors and car exteriors and appropriated by Picasso for fine art purposes from around 1912.  He also read about and experimented on a modest scale with photographic processes such as photograms, photomontage and cyanotypes. 
After leaving Fayrefield Hats, Nolan drifted between jobs for a few months before making the decision in 1938 to paint full-time. He took a city studio at 237 Exhibition Street, with art students John Sinclair and Gordon Thomson. With no regular income to buy art supplies, necessity became the mother of invention and he entered a new phase of creative ferment utilising whatever he had to hand. He made hundreds of prints, drawings and mixed media pieces, en serie.  Many of the materials he deployed were provisory, ephemeral and sometimes rudimentary—tissue, blotting and photographic paper, textile scraps, printed matter, boot polish, brick reddening, chalk, cardboard, plywood and so forth. This was not only because such items were cost-effective, but also because Nolan sought to deliberately transgress the conventional notion that equates fine art with quality constituents. He later explained that he was intentionally using fugitive, transient, and even sullied matter—likely in emulation of the Surrealists—to deflate the exclusive aura of traditional high aesthetics: ‘the more perishable the materials or more unstable the better’ he recalled.  Similarly he eschewed formal training in the spirit of the Surrealist painters and poets who believed that technique acquired in the traditional academic sense was redundant and even irrelevant to art.
Nolan’s knowledge of Surrealism was derived in part from reproduction prints seen at Gino Nibbi’s Leonardo Art Shop at 166 Little Collins Street and in part from his constant reading—which became focused on the collection of the Melbourne Public Library. Here he escaped while purporting to attend further night classes at the National Gallery School then located in the same building. The scope of his self-edification extended from modern art and poetry to include literature and philosophy and he absorbed the texts of Blake, Baudelaire, Dostoevksy, D.H. Lawrence, Proust, Nietzsche and Marx, among others. Of particular resonance were the ideas of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, who emphasised the individual’s responsibility to give one’s life meaning, choose an existence and live it passionately. For a time Nolan was conflicted as to whether his own existence should focus on poetry or painting, and although he chose the latter path, poetry was to forever remain a potent wellspring of ideas for his art practice and a second, significant creative outlet.
Nolan’s primary visual influence in this period, in terms of both method and approach, was the Swiss German artist and Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee, who also knowingly broke the accepted boundaries of painting by constant experimentation with a striking range of techniques and media—spray paint, stamping, and glazing among them, and prosaic supports such as burlap, muslin, gauze, card, metal foils, fabric and newsprint. Klee was a great admirer of the untutored art of children, and Nolan took his cue from the child-like and hermetic qualities of Klee’s work, particularly its language of floating symbols with a recurring moon, and its frequent poetical allusions. He later told art historian Bernard Smith that Klee had a ‘big effect’ on him, and ‘I did a lot of my thinking through his images’.  A number of earthy, organic abstract designs painted on cheap board, with various unidentified materials rubbed into them, evoke Klee’s work strongly. These images are also reminiscent of forays into abstraction by Melbourne modernist Sam Atyeo, who preceded Nolan as the Reeds’ protégé at Heide. Atyeo’s Organised Line to Yellow (c.1933), arguably the first abstract painting to be publicly displayed in Melbourne, was acquired by the Reeds and hung above a fireplace at Heide. 
Nolan’s introduction to the Reeds had come by way of a fortuitous turn of events earlier in 1938. An unsuccessful attempt to gain a paid travel scholarship through newspaper magnate Sir Keith Murdoch had led him to John Reed’s office on a recommendation. This was a turning point for the young artist, as the well-resourced Reeds were quickly convinced of his talent and began to support and promote his practice. Through their agency Nolan became a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), established that year in opposition to the deeply conservative Academy of Australian Art, and as for other young modernists in the Reeds’ circle, it was the main vehicle through which his work became known to fellow artists and a wider audience.
Much of the following year, however, was spent out of Melbourne, at Ocean Grove on the Bellarine Peninsula, with his new bride, the painter Elizabeth Paterson. Nolan worked on a farm and made art in his spare time, with the Reeds visiting regularly to monitor his progress. He commenced a suite of surrealist collages, constructed from cut-up nineteenth-century steel engravings of Old Master compositions arranged in geometric grids. The engravings were torn from the pages of magazines such as The Art Journal and in his own words Nolan took ‘no mercy on the figurative elements’, slicing and splicing them as means to achieve a sense of ‘the lucidity of the non-figurative image’.  His degradation of these high cultural sources was a typically subversive gesture and John Reed noted Nolan’s absorption at the time in the personality and verse of revolutionary French poet Arthur Rimbaud, ‘who appeared to him almost as a revelation and as the epitome of all his own powerful urgings and his own rebellious nature.’  Nolan’s rupture of the printed image was inspired by Rimbaud’s radical manipulation of language to ‘derange’ the senses, through disorientation forging a new reality. A number of these collages, such as The Bather/The Studio/The Waterfall (1940), are specifically designed to be rotated, so as to see different compositions from each point of view. While ‘absolutely modern’ in conception (to quote Rimbaud), the works are paradoxically classical in form, and indeed, in source. Other collages—such as four made on Christmas day 1939, using oil paint, textiles, photographic paper, and salvaged book illustrations and text—are reminiscent instead of the assembled fragments in German artist Kurt Schwitters’ early Merz pictures, which Nolan would have almost certainly seen in reproduction.
Continuing to resist conformity, Nolan created Head of Rimbaud (1939), for the inaugural exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society in June 1939. Despite its title the work is in essence an abstract composition and raw in every sense, down to its smearing of boot polish. It affronted the CAS secretary Adrian Lawlor so much that, after enquiring acidly if a Rimbaud was a French cheese, he tried to forcibly remove the work from the wall. It was followed by the equally anarchic Boy and the Moon (1939–40), a radically simplified yellow head on a dark ground colloquially known as Moonboy, and disparaged as a ‘lavatory seat’ by Nolan’s detractors when displayed at the next CAS exhibition. With hindsight, the importance of this emblematic image in Nolan’s mind was that it ‘freed’ him to ‘take on the visible world’, precipitating his eventual passage from abstraction to figuration.  The transition may also have been prompted by his firsthand exposure to original paintings by modern masters such as Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Dali and others in the hugely important Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art which had opened in Melbourne in October 1939. A raft of lyrical semi-abstracted transfer drawings from 1939 to 1940, arrayed with faces, weeping eyes, moons, stars, lovers, tents and ladders, pay tribute to several of these artists. 
The stimulation of the Herald exhibition contributed to Nolan’s decision to return from Ocean Grove to the city at the end of 1939. He was henceforth frequently at Heide, where he received intellectual invigoration, open access to the Reeds’ library, funds for art materials and a comfortable space to translate his ideas into practice. On 11 June 1940 John Reed opened Nolan’s first solo exhibition in his latest, derelict city studio in Russell Street, opposite the Melbourne Museum. Almost 200 works—abstract paintings, calligraphic drawings, collages, slates and tin tiles were displayed salon-style on walls covered with pink fabric. In his opening speech Reed stated Nolan’s position: ‘it is the artist who makes the rules and the spectator who revises his accepted theories to make them conform with those rules’.  The only positive review of the show came from painter, teacher and critic George Bell, who observed that Nolan was ‘striving, as many are overseas, at an absolutely pure art—an art in which representation of objects has no place at all. In these examples, which are entirely abstract, he is seen experimenting with line, colour, mass and surface texture, significant in themselves as elements of a design discarding all extraneous association of ideas.’  It would seem that certain visitors to the exhibition were not convinced: Nolan returned from lunch one day to discover the addition of two eyes daubed in green paint on one of his drawings,  and the word ‘shit’ inscribed in the same green paint on another. 
In early 1941 Nolan separated from Elizabeth and moved to Heide, where he embarked on a love affair with Sunday Reed. As the romance intensified and his personal life stabilised, his experiments in both a technical and aesthetic sense progressed at a rapid rate. In the months leading up to his conscription into the army in April 1942, he continued to be fascinated by almost every conceivable creative procedure, producing not only two dimensional pieces, but even toying with informal sculptural forms. He applied luminous paint to brightly-coloured paper propellors on spining sticks and attached them to home-made scarecrows and tree branches, as well as painting faces and other designs on the pumpkins in the vegetable garden.  He also re-created Moonboy on a monumental scale on the newly-painted roof of the Heide farmhouse. The motif served as both a playful signature that Nolan added to the practical handiwork he had completed at John Reed’s request and as a gesture in the spirit of the Mexican muralists.  Such activities were stark contrast to those of Nolan’s peers at the time, particularly painters Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd, who both demonstrated a keen interest in trialling different materials and methods yet took a more serious and tradition-based approach, focused principally on easel painting. Tucker and Boyd mixed their own oil pigments according to instructions in Max Doerner’s classic text, Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting (first published in 1921), but this was primarily to save money, not test new ideas—and although there is evidence to suggest Tucker may have used Dulux paint on one occasion, this is as yet unconfirmed. 
By late 1942 Nolan’s line of technical enquiry had become increasingly attuned towards industrial paints, about which he became knowledgeable and exacting. Dulux (followed by Dynamel and Duco) was initially his preferred choice in the medium, due to its glossy effects and manipulability—though relatively quick-drying it allowed for some painterly blending. Dulux also fulfilled his increasing desire for speed. He began to make paintings in rapid succession, even within a day—no doubt satisfying for a highly agile creative mind and characteristically in opposition to the orthodox method of building up a picture layer by layer. His progress, however, was not always as smooth as he would have liked. Though managing to find time for art while attending to his military duties in Victoria’s Wimmera district, he wrote to Sunday Reed that he occasionally felt he could yell at a painting to make it ‘come into shape. And when it goes dead I could kick a hole in it & hold my fists through from the back just to feel there was something real’… ‘The clearer your head is and workmanlike the better the painting, invariably’, he added. 
Though his direction was narrowing in a technical sense, Nolan’s range of subjects was not .His newfound figuration had already expressed itself earlier in the year in explorative depictions of the landscape at Heide and images of St Kilda beach and Luna Park —his boyhood haunt and a rich source of memories. Now, immersed in the vast, expansive wheat-plains of the Wimmera, Nolan felt compelled to paint his immediate surroundings. While the notion of landscape painting was steeped in tradition, and seemed an unlikely vehicle for radical experimentation, he rose to the challenge by representing the land in modernist terms. Dispensing with conventional linear perspective, he tilted horizontal surfaces up to appear vertical and united foreground and background to resolve the pictorial problem of portraying the extraordinary flatness, openness and intrinsic character of the region. Initially short of materials but determined to express his vision, he sometimes worked on pieces of tea chests, taken from the food store he was guarding at Dimboola, and on recycled metal sheets and corrugated card.  Sunday began to dispatch sheets of Masonite, canvases, and linen or muslin laid on board, and at his behest sourced a supply of Ripolin, the high grade enamel sanctioned by Picasso as a ‘healthy paint’  with fluid yet very fast-drying properties.
The Ripolin reached Nolan in January 1943, and heralded a further break-through. Its vivid primary colours, intense reflective properties and ‘quicksilver’ liquidity,  in combination with his conceptual advances, enabled Nolan to transform the Australian landscape of past practitioners into a fresh idiom. He found the paint was best applied expediently on a surface lying flat, a method which invested his images with both a sense of spontaneity and the visible vestiges of the physical process by which they were made—Kiata (c.1943), is a celebrated example. The completed paintings were sent in consignments back to Heide, where Sunday noted their titles, dimensions and medium descriptions in her diary as they arrived. John Reed’s summation of them was as:
the first realisation in paint of this strange and beautiful landscape of ours, a creative achievement of the first magnitude. His treatment was so simple that it was foolishly thought of as naive or primitive whereas in truth it was that ultimate simplicity which comes of the most sensitive and extreme sophistication. Nolan’s eye was unfailing; but its vision was implemented, not only by a rare and profound sensibility but also by a subtle and meditative mind which was able to embrace & elucidate intellectually what the eye revealed. 
If the Wimmera series marked the beginning of Nolan’s lifelong love affair with Ripolin it did not signal the end of his active experimentation. Although for a decade from this point on the majority of his paintings were produced with Ripolin, ahead lay a realm of further new materials and methods to be experienced, as well as familiar ones to be re-visited. Just short of age seventy Nolan returned to spray painting, revelling in contemporary spray enamels, utilising stencils and working the paint with bundled rags or his fingers to vary the surface effects. A creative pioneer who was ‘a quiet rebel, a constant experimenter and a synthesiser of reality and imagination’,  Nolan made work in the late 1930s and early 1940s that opened new territory for subsequent generations of Australian artists and appears as fresh and mesmerising today as it did nearly three quarters of a century ago.
This is a revised version of an essay originally published in Kendrah Morgan (ed.), Sidney Nolan: Early Experiments, exh. cat, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2012.
- Neil Douglas, unpublished notes on six Nolan paintings, May 1962, Reed papers, MS 13186, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, oversize box.
- John Reed, unpublished autobiography, John and Sunday Reed papers, MS 13186, State Library Victoria, Melbourne, box 9b, file 10, p. 70.
- Sidney Nolan, interview with Bernard Smith, London, 1962, Elwyn Lynn Papers, Edmund and Joanna Capon Research Library, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, transcript, n.p.
- Sidney Nolan, interview with Bernard Smith.
- With thanks to Dr Ann Stephen, Senior Curator, University Art Gallery, University of Sydney, for pointing out this potential link with Marcoussis.
- Interestingly, the black outlining of forms in some of these works is reminiscent of the lead work in stained glass fabrication and one of Nolan’s uncles was the proprietor of an ironmongery shop that manufactured stained glass. He assisted Nolan to secure his next job, at Fayrefield Hats. The work of Fernand Léger, which Nolan knew in reproduction, is another, more obvious source.
- Peter Jones, interview with Nancy Underhill, 14 August 2008, notes, n.p. My thanks to Nancy Underhill for lending me this material.
- Brian Adams, Sidney Nolan: Such is Life, Century Hutchison Australia, Melbourne, 1987, p. 16.
- Lou Klepac, ‘Nolan, Ripolin and the act of painting’, in Barry Pearce, Sidney Nolan 1917–1992, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2008, p. 79.
- Brian Adams, p. 17.
- Nolan’s interest in printing processes may have begun during his brief employment at Cyril Leyshon-White’s commercial art studio, where he made posters using the then cutting-edge technology of silk screening. See Brian Adams, p. 14.
- Sidney Nolan, interview with Bernard Smith.
- Sidney Nolan, interview with Bernard Smith
- A recollection of Neil Douglas, the Reeds’ gardener, cited in Jane Clark, Landscapes and Legends, Retrospective Exhibition 1937–1987, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, 1987, p. 58.
- Sidney Nolan, cited in Jane Clark, p. 33.
- John Reed, unpublished autobiography, p. 70.
- Sidney Nolan, interview with Bernard Smith.
- As do Nolan’s set designs for the 1940 production of Icare performed by Colonel de Basil’s touring Ballets Russes company in Sydney. The project came about through the Reeds’ friend, Sydney Morning Herald art critic Peter Bellew, who owned Nolan’s painting The Eternals Closed the Tent (1939). Serge Lifar, the choreographer for Colonel de Basil’s company, saw and admired this work, subsequently commissioning Nolan to design the sets and costumes for Icare.
- John Reed, opening speech, Sidney Nolan exhibition, June 1940, reproduced in full in Jane Clark, p. 16.
- George Bell, exhibition review, The Sun, Melbourne, 11 June 1940.
- Brian Adams, p. 51.
- The first work is likely the drawing reproduced in Andrew Sayers, Sidney Nolan: Works on Paper Retrospective, exh. cat., Nolan Gallery, Lanyon, Gallery, 1980 p. 8. The second is a transfer drawing on tissue paper held in the Sidney Nolan Estate. With thanks to Mark Fraser for bringing these to my attention.
- Neil Douglas, unpublished notes on six Nolan paintings.
- It is now well-known that the crew of a low-flying RAAF aeroplane spotted the huge disk on the Heide farmhouse roof and reported it to the military authorities as a potential navigation signl for Japanese bombers, given its similarity to the Japanese symbol of the rising sun. Two intelligence officers visited Heide and ordered Nolan to paint it out or face imprisonment. See Brian Adams p. 59.
- This refers to an annotation on a photograph of one of Tucker’s early self portraits. See Paula Dredge, ‘Experiments in Gloss Paint’, in Kendrah Morgan (ed.), Sidney Nolan: Early Experiments, exh. cat, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2012, fn. 1., p. 23.
- Letter from Sidney Nolan to John Reed, Dimboola, 5 November  Reed papers, box 9b, file 8.
- For examples of these works and a discussion on their significance to Nolan’s evolution as a landscape painter see Mark Fraser, Making History: Nolan at the Newsagent, online exh. cat., Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2017: https://www.heide.com.au/exhibitions/making-history-nolan-newsagent
- For example House by the Sea (1942), on a tea chest board, reproduced in Nolan’s Nolans: A Reputation Reassessed, estate sale catalogue, Thomas Agnew and Sons Ltd, London, 1997, plate 7.
- Reported by Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice N. Toklas, Vintage Books, New York, (1933), 1961, p. 111.
- Nolan’s own term, in a letter to Sunday Reed, cited in Lou Klepac, p. 81.
- John Reed, unpublished autobiography, p. 76.
- Jane Clark, p. 171.
Kendrah Morgan is Senior Curator, Head of Collections, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Victoria
Images courtesy of The Sidney Nolan Trust and Heide Museum of Modern Art.