Sidney Nolan: a Life, Nancy Underhill, NewSouth.
Sidney Nolan was notoriously cagey about his life. And liked to distort his biography in order for it to fit the image of himself he held. Like a painting, he seemed to view his life as a work in progress, with possibilities for reinvention, the creation of myths, portraiture at a remove from reality. He was relentless in steering his career, manipulating friends, colleagues and celebrities. And yet many of them described him as wonderful company and a good friend.
This biography by Nancy Underhill concentrates on the life more than the art. She goes over the old ground of the complicated relationship shenanigans of Heide, but she is also unafraid to reassess received judgments about Nolan and his work. And her work is a mix of intrepid scholarship and earthy language. (At one point she describes Nolan as ‘daffy’.)
Books and literature, myth and story played important parts in Nolan’s work. But his work also had a naïve, primitive quality. And it was stylistically eclectic, which ensured that in his early days critics found it difficult to get a handle on what he was trying to achieve. Nolan of course was simply experimenting, trying to figure out what worked successfully, in both artistic and commercial ways. Indeed the Kelly paintings are as iconic as any Australian artworks, and succeeded as much as anything in making Kelly into a mythical rather than simply historical figure, but there was also a hard edge to Nolan’s production of the series, with his wife suggesting he should do more Kellys simply because of the income more of these paintings would create.