An Irishman's Diary


On a summer's evening 33 years ago an artist from the other side of the world came to Dublin to see three of his huge masterpieces exhibited together at a single venue for the first time, writes Wesley Boyd.

Such were the extraordinary dimensions of Sir Sidney Nolan's great decorative works that it had been difficult to find an exhibition place in which to hang them together. The Australian ambassador to Ireland, Keith Brennan, who, like Nolan, was from Melbourne and had Irish ancestors, found one at the RDS and set about arranging the largest ever exhibition of the artist's work with the financial assistance of his own department of foreign affairs and the Arts Council here. An anonymous donor contributed £10,000 when it appeared that the venture might not be able to meet the hefty costs; the money was handed over to Mr Brennan on the understanding that its source would not be disclosed to anyone, including the artist.

The works were inspired by Nolan's native Australia. On a visit to the arid outback in 1967 he observed how unusually heavy rains had brought about the germination of seeds which had been dormant for years. He started on a small series of wildflower paintings. The project keep on growing and it occupied him for the next two years. Eventually there emerged a work measuring 150 feet in length and 20 feet in height formed by 1320 paintings. He called it Paradise Garden. A few years later there followed another immense work, Snake, which was 150 feet long and 19 feet high, made up of 1,620 Aboriginal motifs. It featured on a BBC Television arts programme. Technicians spent nearly 12 hours erecting it in the BBC's biggest studio. The third painting in the series, Shark, had not been seen in public until it joined the other two in the RDS under the collective title, Oceania.

Special scaffolding was constructed to hang the works and students were recruited to help mount the exhibition, which included many other works by Nolan. It was opened by the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, and Kenneth Clark, the distinguished British art historian and critic, who was famous for writing and presenting the BBC series, Civilisation, on television, delivered the oration. Clark was a man of many words and he was not parsimonious with his audience at the RDS. He droned on about Nolan's genius: "Sidney Nolan's genius comes from somewhere else. Of course there is a confluence of visible experience and personal experience. But what dictates that confluence, what makes that confluence happen, comes from somewhere else." And so on and so on.

Clark dealt at length with Nolan's many paintings of Ned Kelly, the notorious Irish-Australian bushranger.

Murmurs of dissent could be heard when he described Ned Kelly and Che Guevara, in the same breath, as revolutionary heroes. The sun was beginning to set over the RDS and Clark showed no signs of concluding his monologue until someone shouted from the back of the hall: "Shut up." He did. But he was irritated at the interruption. "Leaving art aside," he said, "you are standing in the midst of a phenomenon about which I will say no more because, quite obviously, you could say it better than I."

The phenomenon was the great attraction of the summertime of 1973 in Dublin. An admission fee of 20 pence, a considerable sum for an art exhibition at the time, was levied by the Arts Council on the grounds that the public would think it was not worth going to see if there was no charge.

It need not have worried. Locals and tourists turned up in their thousands. The author and broadcaster, David Hanly, recalls being dazzled by the three giant exhibits, particularly Snake, a sinuous reptilian form which, he says, seemed to writhe its way for ever across the hall.

The spirited Irish diplomat, Con Howard, a Clare man, invited Nolan to a meeting of the Irish-Australian Society in Kilkenny. Their friendship flourished over the years and the artist began to think about leaving a legacy to his ancestral home.

Nolan's father, a tram driver in Melbourne, often joked that his family had been lapsed Clare Catholics for 300 years in Australia. The family produced many policemen over the generations and young Sidney used to boast to his schoolmates that his grandfather was one of the team who hunted down and captured the Ned Kelly gang. Kelly's trademark metal helmet and breastplate were on permanent exhibition in Melbourne so it is not surprising that the outlaw featured in so many of his paintings.

In a catalogue note to an exhibition of Nolan's work in Pyms Gallery in London earlier this year, William Laffan said there could be no doubt that the artist's attraction to Kelly was the fact that he "rejoiced in the Irish heritage he shared with the outlaw". Describing him as not just the leading painter of 20th-century Australia but one of the most important artistic voices of the Irish Diaspora, Laffan noted that towards the end of his life Nolan said he found the easiest association he had with people was in Ireland.

Con Howard says Nolan told him he intended to make a gift of 50 pictures to the Irish nation. The first instalment of six paintings was handed over to the Government in June 1989. They are on display at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham.

They are from his Wild Geese series, linking the Irish soldiers who fled to France and beyond in the seventeenth century with the economic emigrants, like his own ancestors, who sailed to Australia and America.

They hang along side a watercolour of another of his favourite subjects, Gallipoli, donated by the discerning Irish collector, the late Gordon Lambert.

Nolan lived the last 40 years of his life mainly in Britain. He died there in 1992 at the age of 75, before any more of his paintings could be handed over to the land of his forefathers.