Sidney Nolan at the Australian High Commission

Discreetly advertised, so discreetly both on the street and in the media that it would be easy to miss it, is the best exhibition in London. I went to the Michelangelo/Sebastiano yesterday but it wasn’t the artistic highlight of my week. That honour goes to Unseen, an exhibition of a couple of dozen works by the Australian artist Sidney Nolan.

It’s the centenary of Nolan’s birth and to celebrate there is a slew of exhibitions at Pallant House, at Ikon in Birmingham, in St. David’s and elsewhere in his adopted home of Wales. There’ll also be a show at the BM in October but that will be of his drawings. If you’re a Londoner this show is the major opportunity to see Nolan’s exquisite use of colour this celebratory year. And it’s free.


As I said, the exhibition doesn’t scream its presence in this less busy area of the Strand, though they do have a couple of boards giving you directions. The entrance is at the rear of the Australian High Commission (any Potterphiles will have to be content with a glimpse of Gringotts through some screens once inside) and by contrast to getting into the gallery at the Canadians things are very laid back.

First up take a look at the room – this is a fine building to get inside of and its grandeur is undimmed for being cluttered up by the paraphernalia of an exhibition. I particularly like the setting of the heraldic crest of Australia, familiar to cricket fans from the baggy green but here sculpted in stone. Out back (arf) you have an elaborate staircase that also is worth a peek.


But then get stuck into the art. The staff on the desk are very friendly and will give you a substantial booklet containing a generous amount of information about Nolan’s career and the works on show. And what variety of works there are. Apparently these were Nolan’s own favourites that he kept with a couple of donations from private collections – notably a very early portrait of Arthur Rimbaud.

What I like about the show is how it highlights the range of subjects that Nolan took on. Ned Kelly is what he is famous for, and there is a head of Ned here if that is your thing, but there are also wonderful seascapes, landscapes, portraits, abstracts and religious works. In fact Australia itself, while represented, is a discreet presence.  Nolan’s art on this showing is characterised by a Turner-like wanderlust. A landscape of Spitzbergen has a jewelly blue lake that contrasts well with the muddy brown depiction of his homeland’s terrain.

Thames (1962) will be a treat for Londoners, or anyone who loves London. Because of its subject and its impressionistic style matter it brings to mind Dufy, Monet and Whistler (is that St Paul’s in the background?) but it is completely original. It is a masterpiece of vivid colour (which surely springs out of the artist’s own mind) against a very London slate grey river-sky.

Thames to the right, Spitzbergen ahead.

Around the corner Cockerel and Crucifix has the best chicken I’ve ever seen. A glorious arrogant beast, fierce and bright. Irreverently I thought Christ’s crucifix reminiscent of an upright vacuum cleaner but then the depiction of His agony against the pyrotechnic colour of the bird stopped irreverence, its sobriety all the more striking amid the splendour of its surroundings.

So yes, go to this show, there is much more to see. Especially a Peter Grimes, his ship a shimmer against a desolate backdrop where a flick of foam is all that separates grey sea from grey sky. And the great Matissian dancing abstracts from late in his career which will be staying once the exhibition has moved on, bearing the legend ‘Sir Sidney Nolan OM AC RA’.

#Art #London #Nolan100


Art Exhibitions London

f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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