November 2007

Arts & Letters

Familiar compound ghosts

By Patrick McCaughey
Nancy Underhill’s ‘Nolan on Nolan’ & Darleen Bungey’s ‘Arthur Boyd’

So TS Eliot meditates before dawn after a bombing raid in wartime London. Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan are the compound ghosts of the Australian visual imagination, both intimate and unidentifiable, familiar figures and puzzling presences. In useful and different ways these two books - Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in His Own Words, edited by Nancy Underhill (Viking, 480 pp; $69.95), and Arthur Boyd: A Life, by Darleen Bungey (Allen & Unwin, 576pp; $65) - increase our intimacy with these artists and penetrate their mask of fame.

Nolan was as famously articulate as Arthur Boyd was notoriously inarticulate or, at least, chose to be when journalists or other gormless enquirers asked him about ‘the meaning’ of his pictures. Appropriately we have 450 pages of Nolan’s pensées, and Boyd has fortunately found a biographer of skill and stamina in Bungey to speak for him.

Underhill divides the Nolan texts into four sections: extracts from diaries and journals, selected letters, public statements and interviews, and poems. Much of the first two sections have not been published before and many of the interviews, as well as the infamous Paradise Garden sequence of poems, are relatively inaccessible, so we have much to be grateful for in this anthology. It both shows how Nolan saw himself as an artist and reveals a self that disturbs the image of the charming, well-read and well-connected cosmopolitan that he projected for so much of his life.

Nolan had real insights into himself and what made him tick as an artist. His art sprang from deep within. As he wrote to John Reed from Horsham in 1943, “... there is no such thing as a continuous vision ... one flash succeeds another, it is our job to preserve the organic and spontaneous moments of vision ... There must be a fusion and that is always inward ...” Painting was “dreaming standing up”. When he first visited Fraser Island, in 1947, he commented that “the psyche of the island has bitten into me deeply.” For Nolan, the external world had to be internalised and returned in the form of the lucent image. Painting “ought to be the most intense transmission of feeling as instantly as possible”. More curiously, he once claimed: “Painting is I suppose meant to be a way of getting rid of lies.” For all the hedging in those statements, art for Nolan was kenosis, the emptying out of the spirit.

Two ghosts haunted his inner life: Sunday Reed and Patrick White. For Nolan, they were the great betrayers of feeling and friendship. When in 1981 White published his cruel and malevolent attack on Nolan in his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass (AKA ‘Claws in the Arse’), after Nolan’s marriage to Mary Perceval née Boyd, the friendship, begun in 1958, was ruptured forever. But the diaries and notebooks are filled with references to White and bring out a mild homophobia in Nolan when he notes that The Eye of the Storm was dedicated to Maie Casey: “... remember the dinner in Sydney when I introduced Patrick to Maie. Restaurant in Macleay St., Kings Cross. Maie’s dubious relationships, to Frances Burke the designer of fabrics. Butch. So like call to like. Infallibly according to Proust.”

The spectre of Sunday Reed, wife of John Reed and Nolan’s lover from 1941 to 1947, to whom he gave the first set of Ned Kelly paintings, haunted him to the end. In 1987 - Nolan was now 70 - he told an interviewer:

I’d been through an experience in Melbourne which had gone on for some years in which I’d felt - well, I suppose I shouldn’t really say it - but I felt this lady had not been up to scratch. Done me wrong. Which I still feel. So I did the Mrs. Fraser series as an example of how a man - the convict - looks after the woman and she puts him back in the bush, doesn’t get him the pardon she promised. It was exactly analogous to my situation.

Elsewhere, even casual allusions to Sunday are drawn from the darker side of the inner life. Remembering losing two fingers in Ballarat during the war years, Nolan says: “Apart from my own stupidity I must blame Sunday Reed’s morbid glance.” At the Rodd, his home deep in the Herefordshire countryside close to the Welsh border, he muses: “Mrs. Fraser under the hooves [of] Ned Kelly’s horse / Image of SR underneath the horse of the Ned Kelly painting.”

The most disturbing evidence of her wraithlike presence came in 1971 with the publication of Paradise Garden, the sequence of poems of which almost all took aim at the Reeds: “Steeled by a noon whiskey / I enter her old plumbing.” To this vengeful tone we now have his chilling commentary: “Even though I realize the book had a devastating effect on the women involved, I don’t feel guilty. As a human being I didn’t want to do the book but, as an artist, I had to exorcise something and comment on it in this way.” So much for the charming cosmopolitan.

Nolan’s art and reputation declined steeply in the decade before his death in 1992. “Art is a dialogue between the artist inside himself and the exterior world,” he once claimed. That dialogue weakened in the ‘80s, and he was left with his antithesis: “On the other hand art as a career is a public exposure.” For an artist as self-aware as Nolan, the diminishing of his creative powers must have been painful. When the English critic Peter Fuller bravely broached the subject - “a certain fatal facility” - Nolan bristled: “I turn the criticism on its head: when I produced the Kelly paintings, nobody stood up for them. Now when they talk about my recent work negatively ... it doesn’t matter to me. Flattery will kill an artist. But I feel I am absolved from fulfilling other people’s expectations.”

And he turned misanthropic. Albert Tucker, one of his oldest friends, is called “a right-wing psychopath” and his series Faces I Have Met referred to as “Tucker’s wax mummy portraits.” Most revealingly of all, when he visits Fred Williams’ sprawling retrospective, covering four decades of work, Nolan’s only comment is: “rather embarrassed at his use of my motifs.” The judgement is as wrong-headed as it is egotistical. But in 1988 Williams’ reputation was in the ascent, six years after his death, and Nolan’s envy is palpable. Sad.

Grateful as I am to have all these texts so readily accessible, the editing of Nolan on Nolan is troublingly inaccurate, even bizarre. Stephen Spender, John Berger and Manning Clark are all identified simplistically as “leftists” or “left-leaning”. Nobody is ever born in footnotes documenting peripheral figures; we are given only the date of death. The book has Nolan and Tucker meeting for the first time in 1945 - they met in 1939 - even though it includes a 1943 letter in which Nolan asks how “Bert’s [Army] Board got on”. Cynthia Nolan’s Open Negative is described as a “travel novel”, when it is subtitled ‘An American Memoir’Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was published in 1932, not 1947. The Australian film-maker John Heyer becomes “John Hayter”. Most absurdly, we are told about James Wigley and “John Berger”, the English critic, visiting Tucker in Paris, when it was Yosl Bergner - and this from a letter previously published and properly documented.

Happily, I can report that in Darleen Bungey’s lengthy biography of Arthur Boyd, egregious errors are relatively few. Constable’s Hay Wain is dated to 1841 - inconveniently, as he died in 1837; we are told that John Perceval’s ceramic mural is at the University of Melbourne, when it is actually at Monash; and Heide, the Reed’s redoubt, is spelt “Heidi”. These errors aside, this Life is an immense achievement, a worthy companion to Janine Burke’s 2002 biography of Albert Tucker. Together they are in a class of their own as lives of modern Australian painters.

Anybody who writes on a Boyd must contemplate a crowded canvas. The all-embracing family, spanning and intermingling the generations; the communal living; the profound friendships and the numerous hangers-on: all form a rich matrix from which the hero must emerge. It is a tribute to Bungey that she copes so lucidly and brings so many of these figures to vivid life. The portrait of Arthur Boyd’s parents, Merric and Doris, crucial to his formation as man and artist, are rendered with unsentimental compassion. From childhood onwards Boyd had to care for his gentle father, a potter who suffered a severe breakdown after his kiln was burnt out in the 1920s and after he became an epileptic. Merric was denied the marital bed from the age of 38, and his eccentricity and profligacy steadily led to dementia. Doris, in Arthur’s own words, was “the backbone to our family”. Together, she and Merric created the extraordinary collective household Open Country in suburban Murumbeena, where most of the family lived into adulthood. Numerous interlopers such as John Perceval and the émigré philosopher Peter Herbst, in search of a family, just settled in to Open Country.

Penury and squalor were the order of the day. Boyd wrote to his prospective bride, Yvonne Lennie, “I know all the dirt revolts you.” But it was a protective environment for the boy who failed at school and was ostracised because of the bohemian ways of his family. “Love governs” was the maxim by which Merric and Doris ruled their unruly household.

Paradoxically Boyd needed both the sanctuary of Open Country and to escape its chaos and tensions. His earliest paintings, remarkably accomplished landscapes yoking Van Gogh and Streeton, were done as a teenager at Rosebud, where he lived for extended periods with his grandfather. And he escaped into himself, adopting from an early age an evasive manner, avoiding confrontation, playing the holy fool and adopting what his uncle, the novelist Martin Boyd, called “his Chinese politeness”.

Boyd’s lasting escape from worldly demands and familial bonds lay in his marriage to Yvonne. Darleen Bungey’s portrait of this deep connection forms a brilliant part of her crowded canvas. Beautiful and strong-willed, an aspiring artist or writer, the bourgeois daughter of a bank manager but with communist leanings, Yvonne was a difficult and complex person. On her own admission she was “a trial”, but she erected “a fire-wall” around her husband so that he was free to pursue his work. “She did the dirty work,” as Boyd’s studio assistant, John Hull, observed. She chased away the hangers-on who battened onto the couple during the fat years of the ‘60s and ‘70s in London by announcing their departure: “Arthur wants to work.”

And work he did, ferociously, obsessively, unstintingly for almost all his life. In the late ‘40s, when he was operating the Boyd pottery with John Perceval, his contentious brother-in-law, he would return to Open Country after a long day’s work, have dinner and then paint through much of the night. As much as for Nolan, inner demons drove his work. Painting was an exorcism. When he found his voice in the expressionist paintings of the war years, the figures, often lovers or cripples, became “an amalgam of the helpless, the foetal, new born, geriatric and corpse-like” in Bungey’s good and awkward formulation.

Much later, Peter Porter, the poet and collaborator with Boyd, saw “the celebration of both the fertile and terrifying aspects of sexuality” as his central, recurring themes. The great series of Boyd’s mid career - from the Love, Marriage and Death of a Half-Caste (the ‘Bride’ paintings) and the Nude with Beast to the ‘Caged Artist’ paintings of the early ‘70s, where the imprisoned painter excretes gold - are powered forth by thwarted and requited love, miscegenation and the beast in man.

Robert Hughes once observed (and is quoted approvingly by Bungey) that Boyd’s images had “a strong air of reality ... one feels that Boyd believes in their magical efficacy as firmly as mediaeval Catholics believed in imps, succubi and familiars.” Gentle and generous to a fault, many had trouble squaring the kindly man and the ferocious artist. The achievement of Darleen Bungey’s biography is that we are shown both and taught to accept the paradox.

It ended badly. The dream of an earthly paradise and the demonic images of pain and longing which had driven his art for 60 years deserted him during his final decade. He could no longer paint and began to drink heavily. When he did paint, he was turning out “the Shoalhaven quickies”, as his son, Jamie Boyd, called them, often done with much help from studio assistants. He was painfully aware of his lost powers.

Nolan and Boyd had renewed their friendship in London during the ‘60s, meeting for lunch and to visit the National Gallery. John Hull, who knew and worked for both men, described them as “a pair of devious old boys ... both pirates ... bouncing jokes around and falling over and laughing.” One day in 1984, Boyd and Nolan, now brothers-in-law, were together at their last, beloved fastness - Bundanon, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River - and the allegedly inarticulate Boyd perfectly restated the core of their lives: “... there’s an amorphous atom bomb going off over the horizon, a creek going down, a black dog watching some lovers on the opposite bank, a lot of black crows and a rampant ram. The allegory is the triumph of love in the midst of disaster ... it’s what it often is.”

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