Tag Archives: Australian Art History

N- Sidney Nolan: Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge.

As you may be aware, my theme for this year’s A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I’ll be writing to Australian artist, Sir Sidney Nolan and will be focusing on his iconic Ned Kelly Series 1946-47. The series is held at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Sidney Nolan will be accompanied by the great Peter Allen singing: I Still Call Australia Home

Sidney Nolan was born on the 22nd April, 1917 in Carlton, a working-class suburb of Melbourne and always saw himself as a member of the proletariat…a Working Class Man. In 1938, he married Elizabeth Paterson, but he started having an affair with Sunday Reed. In 1948, he married Cynthia Reed. In 1976, Cynthia Nolan took her life. In 1978, Nolan married Mary née Boyd (1926-2016),youngest daughter within the artistic Boyd family and previously married to artist, John Perceval. Nolan died in London on 28 November, 1992 at the age of 75, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London.

Ned Kelly was a notorious Australian bushranger who has become something of a folk hero inspiring poets, musicians and artists alike. Sidney Nolan has said that the main ingredients of his “Kelly” series of paintings were “Kelly’s own words, and Rousseau, and sunlight”. Kelly’s words, including the Jerilderie Letter, “fascinated Nolan with their blend of poetry and political engagement”.Speaking of inspiration, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series has also inspired other works, including Tin Symphony, which was composed and performed by Ian Cooper at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

When I was growing up, my parents had a print of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly & Constable Scanlon, which was wedded to the walls of three different houses. Indeed, by the time I left home, it had become a much loved member of the family. I’m not sure where it is now. Perhaps, it was buried in the family plot. However, it’s much more likely, that my father dumped it at the tip. He’s not what you’d call “a sentimental bloke”, and more of a “minimalist extremist”. Either way, the painting’s staying power, had me question how often other families change their artworks over, and rotate what’s on display? Or, do their paintings also become married to their walls… “til death do us part”?

Who Was Ned Kelly?

 “…some say that Ned Kelly was a courageous and fundamentally decent young man who was wronged by social conditions that he could not challenge except by violence; while others maintain that he was a common thief and a murderer who deserved only to hang and be forgotten. There is no simple truth of the matter[2]”.

Edward Kelly (December 1854 – 11 November 1880) was an Australian bushranger, outlaw, leader of the Kelly Gang and convicted police murderer. He was born in Victoria, Australia, around 1855. As a teenager he was in trouble with the police and was arrested several times and served time in prison. In mid-1878, following his mother’s imprisonment on perjured police evidence and feeling that the police were harassing him, Kelly took to bushranging with his brother, Dan, Joe Byrne, and Steve Hart. They became known as the Kelly Gang.[3][4] After they shot dead three policemen at Stringybark Creek in Victoria in October 1878, they were declared outlaws. Reacting to the killings, the Victorian Government enacted the Felons’ Apprehension Act 1878 which authorised any citizen to shoot a declared outlaw on sight. A substantial reward was offered for each member of the Kelly Gang, ‘dead or alive’. Ned Kelly is best known for wearing a suit of bulletproof armour during his final shootout with the police at Glenrowan. This armour was made from stolen plough mouldboards. Kelly, the only survivor, was severely wounded by police fire and captured. Despite thousands of supporters attending rallies and signing a petition for his reprieve, Kelly was tried, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, which was carried out at the Old Melbourne Gaol. His last words were famously reported to have been, “such is life”.

Nolan has depicted bushranger Ned Kelly with a square, black box on his head with a rectangle cut out so he can see out and we can see his eyes, which are particularly graphic and expressive.

Kelly has been described as a metaphor for Nolan himself in this series. Nolan, like the bushranger, was a fugitive from the law. In July 1944, facing the possibility that he would be sent to Papua New Guinea on front-line duty, Nolan went absent without leave. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday Reed, whose affectionate nickname for him was “Robin Redbreast”. So when he created this series he viewed himself as the misunderstood hero/artist like the protagonist, Kelly. “Nolan like this Kelly figure has also been a hero, a victim, a man who armoured himself against Australia and who faced it, conquered it, lost it…. ambiguity personified.[3]

Kelly with clouds

My Favourite

Although Ned Kelly & Constable Scanlon brings back precious childhood memories, my favourite is the one simply called Ned Kelly.What resonates with me about this painting, is that when you peer through the eye-slot in his helmet instead of seeing his eyes, there’s blue sky and clouds. This is me. I always have my head in the clouds. At least, I would if I could. I’m proud to be a dreamer.

That’s no doubt a very personal view of the painting, but isn’t that the point of art in the first place? That we develop a personal attachment and relationship with it and it’s not all about head knowledge and gobbledygook.

Sidney Nolan’s Approach to Art & Painting

During my travels today, I came across an interview with Sidney Nolan in the Australian Women’s Weekly, which provides some helpful insights into his thought processes as an artist:

“Like all the projects he discusses, it sounds as if it’s planned within an inch of its life. “I do that with all my paintings, sometimes years ahead, because I feel all the brainwork, so to speak, should be done by the artist, and should not show in the work. Painting is a celebratory process and an emotional one not quite suited to the conveyance of ideas.”

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about painting, says Nolan, and it tends to alienate some people.

“The average person, so to speak, shouldn’t have to be put through an intellectual process in order to understand paintings. The appeal should be immediate, like people one to the other.”

As far as he’s concerned, “it’s the same thing for all of us – an emotional response. You stand in front of a painting and the first thing you get is a wobbly sort of feeling in your stomach.”

To get his own paintings to that point of impact, he “rehearses” them in his head. “I’m always doing it, in a taxi, over break-fast. It’s like moving furniture – it’s so much easier if you’ve done it in your head beforehand, otherwise it’s heavy going.”

“….Yes, I do have rather a lot planned. And of course apart from the painting I have a lot more travelling I want to do. It’s not so much looking for themes – more just soaking things up, images, feelings, perhaps they’ll come together into some good ideas one day, perhaps not, but I doubt that I’ll ever stop doing it.[4]

A Letter To Sidney Nolan

Dear Sidney,

Our time together today was so rushed, but I wanted to thank you for help out with us on the Scout Sausage Sizzle and providing the kids with a few drawings. They will treasure them always. I also wanted to thank you for lending me your pen and your sketchbook during my daughter’s dance Eisteddfod and helping me alleviate my stress. Thank you very much, also for not laughing when we found out we’d left the tutu at home and I’d failed to sew on the last of the ribbons on top my daughter’s ballet shoe, forcing her to dance with a pin jabbing her in the foot. I really wish we could’ve spent the day at the art gallery. Or, perhaps you prefer being out amongst the people, and feast on the inspiration of the everyday. Personally, I’d rather load up a kombi and had up to Byron Bay and park illegally beside the beach. I think you’d be joining me in that, but you’d need to bring your own Kombi.

I know this is probably being rather forward of me, but I wanted to ask you how you managed to keep going after you lost your beloved wife Cynthia, in such tragic circumstances. I thought you might be able to offer some coping strategies and encouragement to those who have lost loved ones in similar circumstances.

Many thanks & best wishes,

Rowena

A Reply From Sidney Nolan

Dear Rowena,

I had a delightful day with you today. Don’t be so hard on yourself, and expect perfection all the time. Everyone makes mistakes, but most of them aren’t fatal and we can recover ourselves in some way. Indeed, I’ve found a bit of paint can cover up a multitude of sins.

Anyway, you asked me about those terrible years after I lost my beloved Cynthia with her famous kingfisher spirit.

For awhile there, it was very hard for me to go on. I wasn’t a young man and wondered whether  “my life had gone as far as it could go.”

“But you see I have some friends who have looked after me very well. And I’ve been lucky that I’ve been helped to survive, because I have been.”

“Lonely? Oh yes. Lonely. But alone? Well, you see, because of those friends I wasn’t really on my own, except with respect to that relationship which, anyway, I’ll have with me for the rest of my life.”

In a way there was a choice, recalls Nolan. “Either you went down, you went under – which in a way would have been all right, because I’d seen a lot of life – or you just came through it and painted harder than before.

“What I think now is that if you remain alive and you’re a painter, your responsibility is to become a better painter. What 1 have to do now is paint more into the paintings – which I’ve tried to do this time.”

I hope that helps. Anyway, I’ve been keeping you up and it’s well after your bed time.

Best wishes,

Sidney.

These quotes were taken from Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), Wednesday 8 June 1977, page 6.

Sources & References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_Nolan

[2] Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), Saturday 3 April 1965, page 9

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_Nolan

[4] Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), Wednesday 8 June 1977, page 6

 

 

Hahndorf, South Australia: the Blacksmith and the Artists.

Welcome to Hahndorf, a German-Australian village in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills.  As you prepare for landing, could you please switch you clocks back well into last century to an era where there were few, if any, cars and the horse and cart were still being serviced at HA Haebich’s Smithy on Main Road, Hahndorf. That was before WWI when Hahndorf’s name was changed to Ambleside, as a reflection of fierce anti-German sentiment and changed back again in 1935.

Map showing the location of Hahndorf.

I send my apologies in advance as this is only going to be a rudimentary tour. This will only be a fleeting day trip for the Blogging from A-Z Challenge. I promise I’ll pop back later for a more in depth visit.

My much loved Grandfather, Bert Haebich, was not only born in Hahndorf but was also descended from the Hartmann and Paech families, who were among the very first German settlers to arrive in Australia back in 1838. These Lutherans were escaping persecution in Prussia and came to South Australia in search of religious freedom. They were an extremely stoic and hardworking community who used to walk their produce into Adelaide on foot and certainly weren’t afraid of backbreaking hard work!!

Hahndorf is a thriving tourist attraction these days and something of a living museum. In so many ways, it looks like a chunk of 19th century Germany, which was dug up and transplanted to the South Australia. Many of the original houses have been retained and restored including Haebich’s Cottage, the family’s home on Main Street, which was built in the late 1850’s by J.Georg. Haebich. It is a substantial ‘fachwerk’ (basically a timber skeleton with infill of pug [straw/mud], brick or stone) German cottage and is absolutely gorgeous.

As this is just a fleeting tour, I’m going to cut to the chase and introduce you to the Blacksmith and the artists.

Heinrich August Haebich, my Great Great Grandfather had a Smithy on Main Street, Hahndorf and lived in Haebich’s Cottage next door. August was was born in Hahndorf on the 17th March, 1851 to Johann George HAEBICH (1813-1872) and Christiane SCHILLER (-1857). August married Maria Amalie Thiele in 1874 but she died less than a year later and on 12th April, 1877, he married Caroline Maria Paech. They had 9 children and I think all four boys worked in the Smithy at some time. With the advent of the car, the business slowly wound down and my Great Grandfather Ed left to work as an engineer with the railways and later as a market gardener. His brother Bill was the last Haebich blacksmith…the end of the line.

My grandfather loved telling me stories of growing up in Hahndorf and I was enchanted. There was an incredible cast of characters and antics like tying a goat to the Church bells so they rang every time to goat reached out to eat more grass. There was also an explosion of some sort during WWII, which sparked fears of a Japanese invasion but was yet another prank. There was a cockatoo which allegedly used to walk across the road leaning to one side with its wing bent staggering along saying: “Drunk again! Drunk again!” Hahndorf is a short distance from the Barossa Valley, one of Australia’s most famous wine-growing regions and there is even a Lutheran Church planted, or should I surrounded by vineyards. I think that should put you in the picture!

While most of the characters in my grandfather’s stories remained anonymous, one name certainly stood out. That was the world-renowned artist Sir Hans Heysen, who lived in Hahndorf with his wife Sallie and family in a spectacular home called: “The Cedars”.

Hans Heysen, "White Gums".

Hans Heysen, “White Gums”.

“Its (the gum tree) main appeal to me has been its combination of mightiness and delicacy – mighty in its strength of limb and delicate in the colouring of its covering. Then it has distinctive qualities; in fact I know of no other tree which is more decorative, both as regards the flow of its limbs and the patterns the bark makes on its main trunk. In all its stages the gum tree is extremely beautiful.”

SIR HANS HEYSEN

 

Heysen had what you could describe as a spiritual relationship with the Australian Gum Tree and he was also captivated by light and trying to capture and infuse light onto the canvas. Understandably, Heysen was quite the conservationist, particularly where saving these glorious gum trees, which were threatened by the installation of electric wires but also by development. He deeply lamented each tree which was lost. Indeed, it was his through his protection of the local gum trees that Hans Heysen entered my Grandfather’s stories. It was known that if anybody wanted to chop down one of these trees, they would have to speak to Hans Heysen first and he was a formidable force. I also found out that my grandfather’s sister, Ivy, worked as a housekeeper for the Heysen’s. That still intrigues me and unfortunately I need had the chance to discuss this with her.

My grandfather took this photo at the Hahndorf Centenary Celebrations in 1938 and I believe that in Hans Heysen standing on the RHS wearing a white coat and his characteristic knickerbockers and long boots.

My grandfather took this photo at the Hahndorf Centenary Celebrations in 1938 and I believe that in Hans Heysen standing on the RHS wearing a white coat and his characteristic knickerbockers and long boots.

Here is a link to some of Hans Heysen’s works: http://www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/agsa/home/Learning/docs/Online_Resources/Heysen_Trail.pdf

With his love and reverence for the Australian Gum Tree, I guess it is fair to say that Heysen’s outlook fitted in better with the more pastoral and bush portrayal of Australia and Heysen certainly despised Modernism and all its trappings. This was reflected in paintings such as The Toilers (1920) where Hans Heysen painted a local farmer “Old Kramm” and his horses.

Perhaps, it was Heysen’s love for this passing pre-mechanised world,which inspired Hans Heysen to undertake an etching of Haebich’s Smithy in 1912. My grandfather had a print of this painting and it was something we knew about and I guess were proud of without knowing any background to it at all.

Hans Heysen, "The Old Blacksmith's Shop, Hahndorf." (1912)

Hans Heysen, “The Old Blacksmith’s Shop, Hahndorf.” (1912)

It was only last year, that I really questioned Heysen’s perspective of the Blacksmith’s shop and how his still life contrasted to my grandfather’s animated stories of a busy, flourishing workshop. I remember how my grandfather;s face would light up, even as an old man, talking about how the water would whoosh up when the red hot steel rim for the wheel would be dunked in water producing an incredible gush of steam. He was a small boy once again mesmerised by the whole experience and and there was such theatre.

In addition to questioning Heysen’s still life of a place which was anything but still, I also realised that Heysen’s work portrayed the more traditional tools of blacksmithing at a time when the Smithy was already being mechanised. August Haebich and his eldest son Otto, were innovative engineers who invented the Wattle Stripper and engines. They were hardly relics from the past or living and breathing museum pieces.

So, there was a bit of food for thought, which I’ll need to investigate further.

In the meantime, while  doing yet another Google search and romping through the online newspapers at Trove, I made quite a discovery. It might not warrant global acclaim but it felt like I’d found a gold nugget in my own backyard. Believe me!  I was shouting “Eureka”from the rafters even though no one else was listening!

It turned out that Hans Heysen wasn’t the only famous artist who had depicted the Haebich Smithy. Hans and Sallie Heysen entertained numerous artists and performers at The Cedars. Indeed, famous singer Dame Nellie Melba was a regular visitor and naturally fellow artists also came to stay. Naturally, they roamed around Hahndorf and did what artists do…sketch. After all, the very quaint German buildings are what we would now call very “photogenic”.

Lionel Lindsay: "The Smithy Window, Ambleside" (1924).

Lionel Lindsay: “The Smithy Window, Ambleside” (1924).

So, consequently, I have unearthed other sketches of the Haebich Smithy. There was one by Sir Lionel Lindsay, brother of artist and author Norman Lindsay of Magic Pudding fame as well as artist and art publisher Sydney Ure Smith. Sydney Ure Smith was so smitten with Hahndorf, that he included scenes in his book: Old Colonial By-Ways (1928)…alongside much more recognised Sydney landmarks such as the buildings in Macquarie Street and Elizabeth Farm House in Parramatta, which is the oldest house in Australasia. Elizabeth Farm House was built In 1793 Sir John MacArthur and was where he con ducted his experiments with merino sheep, giving birth to the Australian wool industry.

Sydney Ure Smith: The Blacksmith's Shop, Ambleside (1925).

Sydney Ure Smith: The Blacksmith’s Shop, Ambleside (1925).

So, immortalised alongside, Elizabeth Farm House, is Haebich’s Smithy.

When you look at it like that, it really does seem rather incredible and amazing and yes, I’m impressed, proud and so many superlatives that I couldn’t possibly get them all down without sounding like a thesaurus!

xx Rowena