News, Reviews, Visual arts

Taking the pulse of young artists

Review: ‘Pulse Perspectives’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Lydia Edwards ·

There is a tendency, when it comes to exhibitions of under-18s’ work, to curate with an inclusiveness that sometimes suggests a lack of discernment. Works are either viewed with awe – “how could that have been done by a school student?” – or dissatisfaction at the skill level or maturity of subject matter. When such exhibitions are staged in established galleries, a viewer can be especially unsure how to judge the work they are seeing. AGWA’s “Perspectives”, an annual exhibition of work by Year 12 Visual Arts students from across Western Australia,  consistently seems to have avoided this uncertainty, and not only because the artists shown are clearly the next generation of West Australian talent. The show has always been curated with a non-patronising, highly professional touch, in line with other, more conventional exhibitions at the gallery. Captions and didactic panels do not focus on the age or status of the artist, but on their personal vision and description of the work, which is often an insightful and useful addition.

Genevieve Matthews (Penrhos College), ‘Ocean in the plastic’ 2018, slip cast, paper cast, porcelain corals, twenty-nine parts: dimensions variable.

With 2019’s “Pulse Perspectives”, which features 46 works by 2018 graduates, the gallery aims to “gauge” and emphasise the “pulse of young people who will influence, empower and shape the world we live in.” A few works in, and it’s clear that the pulse of young Australian students beats to the rhythm of climate change, the refugee crisis, gender disparity and discrimination, as well as cultural isolation. This is hardly surprising, and young activist Greta Thunberg’s chilling battle cry: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day” resonates in works such as ceramicist Genevieve Mathews’ Ocean in the Plastic and Lawson Boughey’s Plea from the earth, which beautifully mimics traditional Chinese paintings with a soft, dreamy peacefulness that – on first glance, at least – belies the sobering underlying message.

Other pieces, like Connor Fallon’s Boys Don’t Cry and Mila Mary’s Super normal gorgeously emulate the work of stalwarts Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin, artists from a different generation who expressed their sexual and social anxiety in remarkably similar ways.

Connor Fallon (Wanneroo Secondary College), ‘Boys don’t cry’ 2018, mixed textile, 66 x 207 x 140 cm irregular.

But amongst all these worthy exclamations of global distress sit more introspective pieces, focused intently on the individual. Far from betraying millennial self-absorption, however, they speak to both age-old growing pains and the quietly growing confidence of a society having to deal with a mental health epidemic. Emily Lewis’s Death inspires me utilises a scratchboard technique to depict a dog-like beast chasing a petrified rabbit, an angst-ridden scene indicative of her recent emotional and life struggles. Beautifully rendered in a medium suggestive of the slow, ancient art of engraving, the work combines the frenetic life of a 21st century teenager leaving home with the kind of slowness and thoughtfulness this generation is often accused of lacking. Such mindfulness is also evident in the work of Alexandra O’Brien (detail pictured top and full work at end), a deaf artist who uses the brooding darkness of the Dutch Golden Age to express the “liminal space” in which she lives.

A tiger chasing a rabbit
Emily Lewis (St Norbert College), ‘Death inspires me’ 2018, scratchboard, four parts: 57 x 168.5 cm overall (framed).

Whilst these works are technically skilful and emotionally absorbing, the exhibition left me with mixed feelings — and this was quite possibly its intention. The personal and collective angst felt by these young people is draining to witness, with very few works predicting a bright future. Nevertheless, if “Pulse Perspectives” is indicative of the current climate, its works need to be shown… and older generations should take note.

‘Pulse Perspectives’ runs until July 22.

Pictured top: Detail from Alexandra O’Brien’s (Iona Presentation College), ‘I’m all ears’, 2018 oil on canvas, audio file and oil on headphones three parts: two at 50.5 x 40.5 cm each; Headphones with audio: duration 2:42 min. Full work below:

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An elderly man lies on a bed, holding one wist loosely with his other hand. He looks exhausted and debilitated
News, Reviews, Visual arts

Intimate glimpses into humanity

Review: Black Swan Prize for Portraiture ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) ·
Review by Lydia Edwards ·

Even amongst curators, art critics and historians, “portraiture” can be a hotly contested term. There are multiple definitions and interpretations, with the word commonly applied to broader subject matter than the human body and spirit. This exhibition, however, sticks closely to just that, and while the Black Swan Prize for Portraiture (presented by ARTrinsic in parnership with AGWA) has always attracted a wide spectrum of media and interpretation, this year’s finalists give us raw and often confronting humanity.

A man, naked from the waist up, decorated with tattoos
We are ushered in by Joanne Morris’s ‘Lister’.

The works are tucked away in a series of rooms below AGWA’s main galleries. It’s not easy to find them, and once you do there is no clear direction through the rooms: you are encouraged to meander through at your own pace, ushered in by the poster boy for the exhibit: Joanne Morris’s tattooed Lister, whose purposeful yet diffident gaze looks beyond you to the other works. The portraits are not arranged thematically or alphabetically – as a viewer, I felt that my direct line of vision on entering each room was simply hit by the brightest, largest or busiest canvases.

As is often the case, however, the portrait that moved me the most, which made me stop dead in my tracks and inhale sharply, was perhaps the best hidden. In a corner, along from Hyunji Kim’s long, bold, disorienting portrait of WA artist Patrick Doherty sits Peter Wegner’s achingly poignant Medicated Man – portrait of G.D. (detail pictured top). In a style reminiscent of Freud and Saville’s “take me as you find me” fleshy, naked bodies, the subject – Graeme Doyle – is exposed in this small canvas; vulnerable, childlike, staring with glazed eyes into the middle distance, not willing or most likely not able to engage. He lies on his side, one hand awkwardly clutching the opposite wrist in a tense, uncomfortable pose.

The exhibition is laced with themes of anxiety and huge personal challenges, but other entries offer some kind of positive spin or resolution. Not Wegner’s, which shows us a “real” face of severe mental illness in the midst of a crisis. In doing so, he offers no respite, no end in sight. Like so many great portraits we are intruding on an intensely private moment and we are fully culpable; powerless, guilty, afraid, saddened. We are the spectator, he is the subject and there is no level playing field.

A portrait of a blonde woman with green tape-like stuff emerging from her head like a plant.
Pensive yet quietly determined. Chelsea Gustaffson’s self-portrait, ‘A Shiny Mess’.

Many of the other canvases portray resilience and, in many cases, the victory of subjects depicted. Mark Tweedie and Chelsea Gustaffson’s self-portraits are sensitive yet defiant, with Tweedie’s steady gaze meeting that of the viewer. In his own words, he spends a lot of time “tangled in my own thoughts”, and his work is a way of “reconciling the brevity of life.” Gustaffson’s ingenious A Shiny Mess depicts an obvious “tangle”, with a glimmering mass of ribbon-like thread hovering above the artist’s pensive yet quietly determined features. Perhaps this medium of self-portraiture takes back some element of control that the likes of Wegner cannot achieve, with a sitter waiting to be captured by the artist. An exception to this could be Glen Preece’s Portrait of the Artist as an Alcoholic, a self-portrait that smacks of low self-esteem and a lack of surety about both his artistic and personal future. However, it is posthumous in the sense that the artist has now moved on from this part of his life; his period of creative paralysis evidently behind him – the viewer hopes – for good.

Other portraits also depict subjects who live with some kind of disability or uncertainty, the theme of anxiety an almost constant thread throughout. Other sitters are also at the mercy of the artist’s representation, though it should be noted that the result always resonates respect, affection and solidarity.

The Black Swan Prize offers a unique insight into how WA artists conceive “the portrait”, and often permits a very intimate glimpse into the psyche of both sitter and viewer. For me, this year’s theme conveyed tendrils of anxiety across Australian society, an important and much needed contribution to our growing discourse around mental health. The fact that Wegner’s piece is hidden away acts as a sign either that this side of extreme, debilitating mental illness is still feared, or as a reflection of how it is not always desirable – or indeed possible – to “battle” openly in society. This quiet, unassuming corner of the gallery is the perfect spot for reflection, critique and appreciation – and there is ample opportunity for all three in this annual display of WA talent.

The Black Swan Prize for Portraiture exhibition runs until November 26.

Pictured top is a detail from Peter Wegner’s achingly poignant “Medicated Man – portrait of G.D.”.

Lydia Edwards is a fashion historian and author. Her first book How to Read a Dress was published in 2017 and its follow up, How to Read a Suit, will be out in 2019. She lectures at ECU and WAAPA, and her favourite piece of playground equipment is the expression swing!

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A box of snails with a sign that says 'hermaphrodites'.
Mixed media, News, Reviews, Visual arts

A chance to wander and wonder

Review: The Tissue Culture and Art Project review, “Biomess” ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Currently on show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia is “Biomess”, an exhibition that examines the possibilities that arise when combining the biological sciences with artistic practice. Collaborative duo Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr make up The Tissue Culture and Art Project, and have been researching bioart, at the intersections of art and science, since 1996. The pair also run SymbioticA Lab, based at the University of Western Australia, which hosts a continuous array of international and local artists, scientists and researchers.

Biomess brings to the fore the occasionally sticky ethical and theoretical implications to the developments in biological science that allow for the creation of new forms of life. The exhibition displays living and dead organisms from the Western Australian Museum’s collection, as well as a deconstructed bioreactor capable of making hybridoma cells, or the fusion of cells from multiple organisms. The artists seek to challenge viewers’ understandings of the fundamental categories of life, death and procreation; and to point out that common understandings of these categories are incredibly limited.

A Seastar comet
Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Seastar Comet – Biomess 2018 (detail), The Tissue Culture & Art Project Collection, Western Australian Museum.

The exhibition consists of a series of slick black and glass cases, lit from below to illuminate the various creatures and objects inside. Animals as diverse as Byrne’s geckos, the mollusc nudibranch, bearded dragons, a taxidermy emu and a live axolotl are on display, variously displayed in water tanks, laid out and stuffed, or piled into buckets and tubs. Significant is that the didactic information is displayed some distance from the cases, leaving the viewer to wander and wonder, and ultimately arrive at their own conclusions about how each creature came to be displayed thus so. The information provided does contribute heavily to engaging with the exhibition’s premise but keeping this information separate from the display cases provides a certain level of distance. The didactic panels, once found, provide a multitude of information regarding the specific curiosities of each animal – Byrne’s geckos, for example, can clone themselves without need of a mate, nudibranchs are hermaphroditic, and axolotls are able to regenerate their body parts. It’s incredibly satisfying – and fascinating – to read about the diversity and quirkiness of life – which is, in all senses of the word, extremely queer.

Mirroring the cases on the other side of the gallery is the large deconstructed bioreactor, containing a jar of hybridoma cells, fused from two separate sources – an entirely human-constructed form of life that defies current forms of classification. This bioreactor gestures towards the possibilities of future scientific research, juxtaposed against the animals displayed in the cases, which are already and have always defied and challenged our understanding of the processes of life, death, gender and procreation, though we didn’t always know it. In this way, the exhibition, taken as a whole, questions the way we classify living matter, as well as the impact of human intervention on “natural” processes – is it natural for a beetle to want to mate with a man-made beer bottle to the point of near extinction of its species? Biomess suggests that the natural is, and always has been, open to interpretation; manipulated and muddled, as humans and non-humans alike respond to their environments, evolve and adapt.

A small furry taxidermied mammal,
Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Brush Tailed Phascogale – Biomess 2018 (detail), 
The Tissue Culture & Art Project,
Collection, Western Australian Museum.

However, circling the cases once again, I felt that in this lab (and gallery), this flourishing of life felt more clinical, the curious and the challenging stripped, stuffed and laid out. Of course, it’s meant to be clinical in a corporate sense, the cases deliberately designed to imitate the clean lines and fetishistic displays of luxury branding, except with a taxidermy parrot lying inside, rather than a Chanel handbag. I was aware that this was a comment on the corporate interests that have the power to sway scientific research and commodify life, but at the same time, by reproducing these formats with little intervention, its critique is somehow softened.

This feeling resonates when considering the presence of live animals in a gallery space. Of course, live animals are used in scientific research all the time, in many awful ways, and the signs prominently displayed at the entrance to the exhibition reassure visitors that the live animals shown here are monitored daily by specialist handlers, yet it’s worth asking whether that’s enough. Monitoring is different to thriving, and I felt decidedly uncomfortable as I watched the axolotl hiding behind the single rock in its otherwise bare tank. But at the same time, my lack of specialist knowledge leaves me unsure as to what kind of environment the axolotl would prefer – a feeling, I expect, that is shared by other visitors from non-scientific backgrounds. It’s clear from this exhibition that we have much to learn about the so-called natural world, and the ways in which scientific practices, corporate interests, and everyday existence are entangled.

“Biomess” runs at the Art Gallery of WA until December 3, as part of “Unhallowed Arts”.

Read an interview with Oron Catts, about SymbioticA, “Unhallowed Arts” and “Biomess”.

Pictured top: Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr, Land Snails – Biomess 2018 (detail), The Tissue Culture & Art Project Collection, Western Australian Museum.

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Title: Disembodied Cuisine Installation Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary) Medium: mix Date: 2003 Photography: Axel Heise
Installation, Mixed media, News, Visual arts

A peek inside the lab

A monstrous arts event is about to take place in Perth. Named “Unhallowed Arts”, it’s timed to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and features exhibitions and events that explore that seminal text’s influence on contemporary life and culture.

While Frankenstein’s laboratory may be fiction, behind the monstrosity that is “Unhallowed Arts” is a real lab, SymbioticA. Curious, Nina Levy got in touch with Symbiotica’s director, Oron Catts, to find out more.

Nestled deep in the heart of the School of Human Sciences building at the University of Western Australia (UWA) is a laboratory with a difference. Make your way up to the second floor, past the fridges storing biological material, and you’ll find the home of SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory in a biological sciences department. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms then you’re about to have your mind opened. Rather than viewing science and the arts as mutually exclusive disciplines, SymbioticA is predicated on the idea that the two are inextricably linked.

“We are interested in the concept of life and how our relationship to that concept is changing and shifting,” explains SymbioticA’s director, Oron Catts. “So it makes sense for us to park ourselves in the biological science department, where the most radical shifts in dealing with the idea of life, and life in general, are happening. Our research scope ranges from the molecular to the ecological but with a keen interest in contemporary biotechnological ways of engaging with life. What makes us really special is that we have our own research lab, a level two biological lab, specifically for artistic research.” For the non-scientists amongst us, according to Wikipedia, “level 2” refers to the level of precautions that need to be taken in order to ensure that dangerous biological agents remain contained within the lab.


In addition to enabling artists and researchers to engage in wet biology practices, SymbioticA also hosts residents, workshops, exhibitions and conferences. Based at UWA since 2000, SymbioticA was founded by Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr, now the academic co-ordinator. As Catts explains, from the beginning SymbioticA has been concerned with the idea that the rapidly developing field of biotechnology, which allows biological and genetic materials to be manipulated, needs the input of artists as well as scientists.

“The main reason SymbioticA got started was this interest in the idea that biology is becoming more and more of an engineering pursuit and [that] life [is becoming] the raw material for human wants and needs,” he elaborates. “We felt it was really important for artists to also start to use the living biological materials … if other professions are allowed to do it, it’s particularly important for artists to explore this area because we need to make sense of what it means to treat life in such a way.

“We try to be non-prescriptive … We’re not trying to tell [our residents and students] how to think about these issues, we’re trying to make them aware of those issues and trying to find different strategies to open up those questions to the wider community and get them involved in the awareness that something very, very strange is happening to life and that we shouldn’t leave those decisions about we’re doing [solely] to scientists, business people and engineers.”

As the name suggests, SymbioticA is founded on the idea that there is a symbiotic relationship between science and the arts – “the capital S stands for science and the capital A for arts,” says Catts – but he is anxious to emphasise that it’s not about outcomes or benefits for either field. He is wary of what he refers to as “the innovation paradigm.” He elaborates, “That’s the neoliberal idea that we always have to come up with gadgets and innovations to justify our existence. We try not to revert to that rhetoric because we believe that there’s way more important things to think about than just short-term profits… in most cases, they’re not even benefits.” Instead, he says, SymbioticA is engaged in a “critique of life science.”

This was the first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals.
‘Tissue Engineered Steak No.1’, 2000, A study for “Disembodied Cuisine” by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary). Medium: Pre-Natal sheep skeletal muscle and degradable PGA polymer scaffold. This was the first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals.

That said, SymbioticA has been involved in some exciting scientific developments, continues Catts. “We have quite a few scientific applications that have come out of SymbioticA … because the nature of the questions we ask can generate new knowledge, just by engaging with queries that artists have around the materiality of living systems and what can be done to them. We are credited, for example, with being the first place that was growing meat in the lab, and growing leather. We did that very early in the game. We have an artist here, Guy Ben Ary, who is also one of the technicians and is doing a lot of work with neuroscience and stem cell research and he has worked very closely with scientists to develop new ways of doing things.

“But first and foremost, we focus on the idea that we are living in a time when life is going through major transformations and there is a need for a wide variety of approaches in dealing with [the questions that arise as a result]. We represent one approach, which is experiential … we train the artists in techniques, so that they’re not looking over the shoulder of scientists, they’re actually working in the lab, with the materials and they gain a very intimate understanding of the field which allows them to be much more informed about the possibilities. This is another issue we have at the moment – the meat is a prime example, it’s being hailed as something that might save the world, but we see it as a symptom of the ailments of the world, rather than solving the [world’s] problems.”

It’s unsurprising, then, to learn that in spite of keeping a relatively low profile at home, SymbioticA has an international reputation. That low profile at home is about to change, however. Throughout September and October SymbioticA will be revealing itself on a monstrous scale, with “Unhallowed Arts”, a collection of arts events at various venues in Perth and Fremantle. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to comparisons that have been made between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature, and the SymbioticA artists working in their lab. Initially unwanted, the group has decided to embrace the comparison. It’s timely, as 2018 is the bicentenary of the publication of Shelley’s gothic novel.

The initial idea for “Unhallowed Arts” was to hold a conference, says Catts, but with overwhelming interest, it quickly developed into a much larger scale event, with exhibitions at the Art Gallery of WA, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Old Customs House (Fremantle), UWA’s Cullity Gallery and Paper Mountain, and a film program at the State Library, in addition to “Quite Frankly”, the conference being held at UWA.

One of these exhibitions is developed by Catts and Zurr as part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project. Intriguingly entitled “Biomess”, it is curated by the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Curator of Contemporary Design and International Art, Robert Cook, and opens at AGWA, September 8. As the name suggests, the exhibition looks at what Catts describes as “the messiness of biology”.

“Biomess” started with Catts and Zurr approaching curators at the WA Museum. “We asked them if they have any specimens in their collection of organisms that defy a sense of self or body or reproduction,” says Catts. “We were starting to thinking about it around the time of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, when conservatives would use [arguments] like, it’s not natural to engage in particular sexual relationships. When you look at the way living biological systems deal with [sexual relationships], there is such a variety, so many organisms that change their gender in their lifetime, organisms that reproduce in different ways. One example, which unfortunately we don’t have in our show, is a bird that has two variants of the male, where one male looks like a female. The [female-looking male] gets the male-male to mount them. When they do so they transfer the sperm into the male-male and then that bird mounts the female. So the manly male is the vehicle for the feminised male to transfer its sperm into the female.”

While that example won’t be seen, there are plenty of fascinating specimens that will be part of the exhibition, says Catts. “An amazing example is that there’s a beetle where the male started to fall in love with a specific beer bottle, to such an extent that they lost interest in females and were only mounting the bottles. Biologists went to the brewery and asked them to change the design of the beer bottle because there was a risk that the beetle would go extinct from fetishizing the bottle.

“We have a marsupial that the males, when they reach sexual maturity, they stop everything and just procreate until they die of exhaustion.

“There are other organisms that are hermaphrodites, there’s fish that change their gender from female to male. There’s only one dominant male, so if that male disappears or dies, one of the females in the group becomes male.”

While that sounds fascinating enough, there’s another twist. “We’ve commissioned the designers who build the luxury display cases for David Jones to build display cases for the specimens. The idea is that when you enter the gallery you’re not sure if you’re in art museum, a natural history museum or a luxury shop,” elaborates Catts. “That will be contrasted with an incubator that we’re designing here. We’ll have living organisms there: snails, slugs…” he pauses to throw the question to taxidermist Teori Shannon, “What else will we have?”

“Stick insects, these pink sea cucumbers, some starfish… we’ve got these snails that can grow bigger than a tennis ball. They’re really nice,” replies Shannon.

“And then we’ll have lab-grown life,” continues Catts. “We are working with what’s called the hybridomas. As early as the late 1960s scientists found a way to fuse cells from different organisms to grow together and become one new organism … it’s a lifeform which can only exist within the confines of a lab, but defies any form of classification. You have human/mouse hybridomas, you have mouse/horse hybridomas, some of them have three different organisms.”

Listening to Catts talk I feel like I’ve slipped into some kind of futuristic sci-fi fantasy film set… except that I know that I am sitting in the Biological Sciences building at UWA. At the point where arts and science intersect it seems that anything is possible.

Catch Biomess at the Art Gallery of WA, September 8 – December 3. Find out more about that exhibition and the rest of the “Unhallowed Arts” program at

Pictured top: Disembodied Cuisine Installation, by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary), medium: mix, 2003. Photo: Axel Heise.

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Sidney Nolan The trial 1947 from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947 enamel paint on composition board 90.70 x 121.20 cm Gift of Sunday Reed 1977 National Gallery of Australia
Features, News, Painting, Visual arts

Sublime Sid and Ned: the painter and the painted

Ned Kelly was not just Sidney Nolan’s subject, but his alter ego, writes David Rainey.  To coincide with the opening of “Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series” at the Art Gallery of Western Australia on August 11, Rainey provides a fascinating insight into the work of one of Australia’s most iconic artists.

Ned Kelly is visiting the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA); or to be more precise, 26 Kelly-themed paintings are making their first visit to the West. A recent excursion by Kelly himself to these parts, however, went largely unnoticed and eluded the vigilance of many.

Ned Kelly on a telegraph post
Ned Kelly sighted at Lower Chittering.

Here is a little known tidbit of bushranging history: Joseph Johns, aka Moondyne Joe, was a childhood hero of Kelly, who revered the Welshman-turned-bushranger. Seesaw can now reveal that Kelly, weaned on the teat of Moondyne bravado, posthumously visited the West in search of his alter ego. He was captured, so to speak, whilst surreally taking cover behind a telegraph pole outside the Lower Chittering Volunteer Fire Station.

Children's pictures of Ned Kelly
Ned Kelly portraits at Toodyay Primary School

Later that day he bailed up the Year 3 class at Toodyay Primary, holding children hostage until they painted his portrait. The images collected here seem to corroborate the Chittering sighting.

Kelly’s appearance at AGWA, then, is a return visit, but one that is much better publicised than his first. More seriously, it is fascinating to  consider “Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series” in terms of what will and will not be seen. Nolan said that Kelly’s own words were ingredients in these paintings, and so here I borrow Nolan’s own words to tell the tale.

First though, a more conventional summary.

In April 1946, Nolan visited Glenrowan, the site of Kelly’s capture, with fellow “Angry Penguin” Max Harris. He had already painted at least one of the so-called “first series” Kellys and would complete them over the next 15 months. With one exception they were painted on the dining table at Heide, the home of wealthy modernist art enthusiasts John and Sunday Reed with whom Nolan had lived in a ménage à trois since the collapse of his first marriage in 1941.

In July 1947, soon after he painted The Watch Tower, Nolan left Heide, and would return only briefly. The parting was strained, and his relationship with the Reeds became increasingly acrimonious over time – his second marriage, to John Reed’s sister Cynthia in March 1948, but the first barrier.

At the time he readily conceded, “I do not even feel that the Kellys belong to anyone else other than Sun” (1) and cooperated with the Reeds in selecting 27 paintings from the total of about three dozen which remained at Heide. He assisted in providing text for their initial public hanging at the Velasquez Gallery in Tye’s Furniture Store in Melbourne in April 1948.

By 1971, however, his attitude had very much changed. In his poem “Fidelio” he lamented “the man with the iron mask and the robin on the fence” being in a bank vault “buried without being dead.” (2)

Do try to locate that robin in this exhibition. It’s there to be seen in one of the works, a visual signature by Nolan referring to the alias “Robin Murray”, which he used when absent without leave during and after the war.

Do try to locate that robin in this exhibition. It’s there to be seen in one of the works, a visual signature by Nolan referring to the alias “Robin Murray”, which he used when absent without leave during and after the war. As he explained it in 1991, “that was maybe Sunday’s idea … she always called me Robin, that’s robin red breast.” (3)

In 1977, Sunday Reed gave 25 of the 27 Kelly paintings, “with love” as she insisted the deed record, to the National Gallery of Australia – one, Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek, having been privately purchased from Nolan when it was first exhibited in May 1946; and a second, First Class Marksman, having been re-acquired by Nolan.

First Class Marksman has been exhibited with all the others on only a few occasions, the last in 1997.  Marksman will not be making an appearance at AGWA.  It has always been the outlier – the only one not painted at Heide but at Vassilieff’s home “Stonygrad,” the only one not in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia but rather with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the only one that reverted to Nolan’s own possession. It holds the record for the highest price achieved at auction by an Australian artist – $5.4 million in 2010.

In the mid-1960s, Max Harris railed against British critics who lionised the Kelly paintings as “a deep and complex interpretation of a myth of Australian nationhood, and a unique view of the relationship of the Australian man to his environment. Australians, say the subtle London critics, tend to lose their identity, become iron masks behind which is nothing, in the harsh Australian landscape”.

“Bum!” exclaimed Harris, “…. Kelly is, in this famous sequence, purely Nolan’s alter ego, a virility symbol, and the series exists as a catharsis of Nolan’s basic insecurities.” (4) Later in life Nolan admitted, “Really the Kelly paintings are secretly about myself. You would be surprised if I told you. From 1945 to 1947 there were emotional and complicated events in my own life. It’s an inner history of my own emotions.” (5)

Later in life Nolan admitted, “Really the Kelly paintings are secretly about myself … It’s an inner history of my own emotions.”

There are certainly similarities between the painted and painter. Both were fugitives from the law –  Kelly a bushranger with a price on his head, Nolan absent without leave from the army; both had Irish roots, although Nolan’s much-vaunted Irish heritage was Northern Ireland Protestant, not the Catholic roots of Ned Kelly. Nolan never bothered to correct this misapprehension – over time it would serve him well.

Sidney Nolan, ‘Burning at Glenrowan’, 1946, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 121.50 x 90.70 cm, Gift of Sunday Reed 1977, National Gallery of Australia.
Sidney Nolan, ‘Burning at Glenrowan’, 1946, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 121.50 x 90.70 cm, Gift of Sunday Reed 1977, National Gallery of Australia.

Other images invite speculation. Does the figure of Mrs Reardon, seen in the Glenrowan paintings fleeing the burning inn with her young daughter, bring to mind Nolan’s first wife Elizabeth fleeing the conflagration at Heide with their young daughter Amelda?

Indeed, it is a remarkable coincidence that an untitled painting of this time, known as Mrs Reardon and Child goes to auction in Sydney just two days before the AGWA show opens. (6) This work adds credence to the above speculation. Nolan kept this painting all his life and on his death in 1992 it went to Amelda. Dated 27 January 1946, a period of intense personal turmoil for Nolan – in July 1945, Elizabeth had been granted a divorce on the grounds of his desertion, and two months later with Nolan deserted from the army, his young brother Boy drowned in Cooktown on return from active duty – the pervasive lyrical beauty of this painting reaches into this 21st century with a poignant tranquility.

We can also speculate as to why Nolan cut the original six-by-four-foot Glenrowan painting in half to produce the Burning (above) and the Siege. Was it simply because Peter Bellew suggested it was too large, or is there something more significant about the parting?

And, in The Watch Tower – based on a photo of Longreach in Walkabout magazine and the very last of the first series Kellys – did Nolan replace a very look-alike figure with a trooper? He painted it only a few weeks before departing Heide at a time when he was surely on the lookout to get out.

Sidney Nolan, ‘Steve Hart dressed as a girl’, 1947, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 90.60 x 121.10 cm, Gift of Sunday Reed 1977, National Gallery of Australia.
Sidney Nolan, ‘Steve Hart dressed as a girl’, 1947, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 90.60 x 121.10 cm, Gift of Sunday Reed 1977, National Gallery of Australia.

In 1961, at the time of his exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London, Nolan said that, “Kelly’s own words, and Rousseau, and sunlight are the ingredients of which they (the Kelly paintings) were made.” (7)

The Rousseau influence can be seen nowhere better than in comparing Rousseau’s painting War to the clouds of Nolan’s Encounter, and to the black steed of his Evening.

As for sunlight, few artists can hold a candle to Nolan when it comes to capturing the light and the colour of the Australian bush and the outback. In 1988 he spoke of “the implacable, beautiful landscape … How can one put it? It’s God’s gift to the world.  In Australia there’s a wonderful light that shines upon it and makes it ethereal…” (8)

Be sure to concentrate on the light when you visit these paintings. And if perchance, like quite a few others, you have trouble with Nolan’s rather naively styled portrayals of characters in the story, simply ignore them and imagine the paintings without any figures at all. Imagine just the landscapes.

Four years before he died Nolan linked the Kimberley to his famous Kelly image (pictured below) via Casper David Friedrich’s painting Monk by the Sea. He said,

It’s the same feeling you get with Friedrich and his famous picture ‘Monk by the Sea’. This shows a single figure of a man looking out by the sea; he’s seen from behind. That’s the same as Ned Kelly in that key painting where he’s on the horse looking out into nothing. (9)

Sidney Nolan: Ned Kelly
Sidney Nolan, ‘Ned Kelly’, 1946, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 90.80 x 121.50 cm, Gift of Sunday Reed 1977, National Gallery of Australia.

Friedrich’s painting Monk by the Sea, the quintessential image of the Romantic sublime, brings to mind so clearly those marvellous last words in Randolph Stow’s novella To the Islands. Heriot, the ageing disillusioned mission station supervisor up in the Kimberley, has walked a metaphorical end-of-days journey to the coast with his young Aboriginal friend. He looks out over the Arafura Sea to the Aboriginal islands of the dead: “‘My soul,’ he whispered, over the sea-surge, ‘my soul is a strange country.’”  Could any words better evoke the ethos of Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea? or of Nolan’s Ned Kelly?

In the 1960s Nolan and Stow collaborated on a number of books including Outrider, an anthology of poems by Stow, for which Nolan did the illustrations. (10) One poem, “The Land’s Meaning”, Stow dedicated to Nolan. With what meaning has Nolan painted the land? Let Stow speak:

The love of man is a weed of the waste places,
One may think of it as the spinifex of dry souls.

…. What is God, they say,
but a man unwounded in his loneliness?

…. a skin-coloured surf of sandhills jumped the horizon
and swamped me. I was bushed for forty years.

And I came to a bloke all alone like a kurrajong tree.
And I said to him: ‘Mate – I don’t need to know your name –
Let me camp in your shade, let me sleep, till the sun goes down.’

Nolan always saw his Kelly paintings as more than the Kelly narrative, and so should we. As he put it in 1978, “I wanted a visual form of the ‘otherness’ of the thing not seen.” (11) And he told his friend Jack Lynn, “I like what an historian [Steven Runciman] said of the Kelly series: ‘They are really stations of the Cross’.” (12)

With time, perhaps Nolan discovered a personal Via Dolorosa in the Kelly paintings.

The best advice to take into this exhibition was given by Max Harris, who visited Kelly country with Nolan back when it all began. “Look at the painting by all means ….” Harris said in 1989, “but also look into the heart of the matter. If you miss that, you miss everything.”(13)

David Rainey is a Canberra-based independent writer and researcher with a particular interest in Sidney Nolan. He maintains the websites and

This article was first published by David Rainey: and is published here with kind permission from the writer.

“Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series” shows at the Art Gallery of WA, August 11 – November 12.

Pictured top: Sidney Nolan, ‘The trial’, 1947, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 90.70 x 121.20 cm, Gift of Sunday Reed 1977, National Gallery of Australia.



1 Sidney Nolan, Letters to John Reed, 14 January 1948, Papers of John & Sunday Reed, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, MS 13186, Box 2, File 6.
2 Sidney Nolan, “Fidelio”, in Paradise Garden, R Alistair McAlpine Publishing Ltd, London, 1971, p. 53.
3 See Sidney Nolan interviewed by Michael Heyward, London, 5 April 1991.
4 Max Harris, “Conflicts in Australian Intellectual Life”, in Literary Australia, Ed. Clement Semmler and Derek Whitelock, F W Cheshire, Melbourne, 1966, p. 22.
5 Sidney Nolan, comments made to Elwyn Lynn on 6/9/1984 published in Elwyn Lynn, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly, ANG, 1985.
6 see , downloaded 2 August 2018.
7 Sidney Nolan quoted by Colin MacInnis, “The Search for an Australian Myth in Painting”, in Kenneth Clark et al, Sidney Nolan, London: Thames and Hudson, 1961, p.30.
8 Interview with Peter Fuller, “Sidney Nolan and the Decline of the West: A Modern Painters Interview with Sir Sidney Nolan,” Modern Painters, Vol.1, No.2 (Summer 1988); quoted in Nancy Underhill, ed., Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his Own Words (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2007), p. 344.
9 ibid., p. 349.
10 Randolph Stow, Outrider, MacDonald, London, 1962.
11 Sidney Nolan, quoted in Elwyn Lynn and Sidney Nolan, Sidney Nolan – Australia, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p. 13.
12 Elwyn Lynn Papers, Art Gallery of New South Wales, from a tape recorded April 21, 1978 and from phone conversations in 1978, quoted in Nancy Underhill, ed., Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his Own Words (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2007), p. 267.
13 Max Harris, Introduction to Angry Penguins, and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s, Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency, Canberra, 1989, p. 6 .


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August 18, Calendar, July 18, June 18, September 18, Visual arts

Visual arts: Chinese Ceramics Revealed, 5th Century BC – 1983: Highlights from the Yuen Collection

16 June – 17 September @ Art Gallery of WA ·
Presented by various contributors, from WA private collector ·

The seventy-six objects on display comprise a selection from the extensive collection of Chinese ceramics belonging to Albert Yuen, a Perth-based Hong Kong native with a longstanding passion and knowledge for this particular aspect of Chinese art.

The works range from the 5th century BCE to the late 20th century, covering all important moments for Chinese ceramics under the Warring States, Han, Jin, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the People’s Republic of China.

They are made of earthenware, stoneware, proto-porcelain and porcelain. They can be as elegant and understated as the cream- or celadon-glazed vessels of the Song Period; as flamboyant as the polychrome figurative vases of 18th-century Qing China; as striking and sophisticated as the blue-and-white objects, a legendary hallmark of Chinese porcelain production.

They were placed in tombs or in wealthy homes for decorative enjoyment but they were also functional objects such as weights, tea cups, pouring vessels, flower vases, and serving plates. Seen at a glance, they are testimony to one of the most accomplished continuous artistic creations the world has ever seen.

Perth is known to host several art collections of high quality in private hands. However, they are overwhelmingly limited to the past 150-200 years and geographically and culturally to Australia (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal), Europe and North America.

It is therefore with pride that AGWA includes in its program this collaboration with one of the very few collectors who look back at their own heritage at the same time being fully and proudly Australian. This is not only the first time that AGWA will display an exhibition of historical Chinese ceramics, but also one that is entirely sourced from Western Australia.

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Pictured: Unknown (China) Qing Chenlung Red glaze Famille Rose vases with white cranes (a pair) red vase with white crane On loan from Private Collection

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News, Reviews, Visual arts

Humanising history

Review: The Corsini Collection – A Window on Italy ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

The Corsini Collection is inextricably tied to one family and one city – the Corsinis, in Florence – but it is also part of a larger narrative that encompasses several major events of the modern era. The exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) provides viewers with an introduction to Italian art and the families whose collections enhanced and guided the narrative of art history through the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

It’s hard to think of Italian art without thinking of the cities that fostered these movements, and I was struck by the way in which Florence emerges throughout the exhibition as a personality, almost a family member of the Corsinis themselves. From an image of the fanatic Savonarola, who gripped the city with religious zeal, being burned in the square of the Piazza della Signoria, to extensive family portraits with the Arno flowing through fields out the window, Florence is more a character in this family drama than simply a backdrop. Even the family dog, who provides a sweet wall companion to children as they walk through the exhibition, is named Arno.

SCUOLA FIORENTINA DEL XVI - Veduta della Piazza Signoria col rogo di Savonarola
Florentine painter after Francesco Rosselli (Florence 1445 – before 1513) ‘The Execution of Savonarola and Two Companions at Piazza della Signoria’, 16th – 17th century,  oil on canvas,  96 x 119 cm,  Galleria Corsini, Florence.

Walking through the exhibition I couldn’t help but feel a fizz of excitement – it is pretty amazing to think that currently there are works by masters of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, such as Botticelli, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio, here in Perth. The exhibition is divided thematically to provide a general guide to art of the periods as well as the lifestyles of the rich and powerful families such as the Corsinis. It is, of course, quite different viewing these works on the walls of the brutalist building that is AGWA, as opposed to those of a Florentine palazzo. Huge decaled images of the palace interiors, however, provide a helpful backdrop to pieces that could otherwise appear a little dull without context, such as the family dining set, pots and pans, and a games table. The paintings are heavy on portraits, particularly of the family, and the centre room is the locus of the exhibition, with the Botticelli tondo Madonna and Child with Six Angels (c 1500) taking pride of place.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri known as Guercino (Cento 1591-Bologna1666) Saint Andrea Corsini 1630 oil on canvas 75 x 65 cm Galleria Corsini, Florence
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri known as Guercino (Cento 1591 – Bologna 1666) ‘Saint Andrea Corsini’ 1630, oil on canvas, 
75 x 65 cm, Galleria Corsini, Florence

Renaissance and Baroque art can sometimes feel far removed from our everyday realities, but throughout the exhibition it becomes apparent that the Corsinis were as affected by historical events as anyone. Unlike the Medicis, the other main family of Florence, the Corsini line survived into the modern era, and it’s fascinating to imagine what it must feel like to have your ancestors so elegantly portrayed around you, and a treat to see the Renaissance and Baroque works give way to photography and portraiture of the 1950s and 60s. It’s also interesting to see the details of our more recent history enter their narrative, most strikingly with the bullet hole through the head of Guercino’s Saint Andrea Corsini (1630), fired by a German soldier who, thankfully, did not realise the painting was hung on a false wall, behind which the remainder of the Corsini family’s art collection was hidden.

It’s these touches of drama that give the exhibition its warmth, turning it into something that’s not just a line-up of famous names, but a show about one family who, despite being born into a life of power and privilege, had a real, abiding commitment to the art of their home city and preserving it for future generations to enjoy.

Top: Exterior of Palazzo Corsin

“The Corsini Collection – A Window on Florence” runs until 18 June.

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