Yet another Sidney Nolan Retrospective opens tonight in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, before touring to Melbourne and Brisbane. The following four anecdotes give some flavour of the artist and the man.

  • Manning Clark was rounding up signatures for a statement in support of the Republic. He asked Arthur Boyd what Nolan might think of the idea. “Oh, Manning, you know I’ve known Sid for 40 years and I’ve heard him talk a very great deal about almost every conceivable subject, but I’m afraid I’ve no idea what he thinks.”
  • Nolan was making another of his tax-exempting donations to the nation, this time from his Great Wall of China series, which have a few lines scrawled across vast, otherwise vacant canvases. On inspecting the gift, the Deputy Chair of the Visual Arts Board, Michael Shannon, remarked: “These can’t have taken you long, Sid.” “I’ve better things to do with my time than paint,” said Nolan.
  • Nolan fell victim to Patrick White’s venom in the writer’s 1981 memoir, soon known as Claws in the A-se. Among the accusations were “the chase after recognition by one who did not need it, the cameras, the public birthday”. In response, Nolan caricatured White and his lover, Manoly Lascaris, in a diptych, titled Nightmare. Commenting on the brawl, the director of London’s Whitechapel Galleries where Nolan had enjoyed his first retrospective in 1957, Bryan Robertson, announced: “They’re just a couple of ice cold old queens hacking away at each other.”

    “But Sid’s not gay,” one of Robertson’s listeners responded.

    “No”, Robertson proceeded, “But he’d do anything if you praised him.”

  • Shortly afterwards, White was tickled pink to hear that another painter referred to Nolan as “the Bing Crosby of Australian art.” The night that Nolan inherited the Order of Merit from Lord Clark of Civilisation, White was telling friends: “I see that Bing Crosby has got the OM. That was the only British honour worth considering, and now they’ve ruined that.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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