10 December 2021

Sidney Nolan at Heidi, Vanessa Bell at Charleston

I saw this small gem on my first visit to 'Heidi', the former home of Sunday and John Reed on the outskirts of Melbourne. It is a renovated dairy farm by this powerhouse couple of bohemia in the 1940's. They could easily remind one of another powerhouse couple; Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant who renovated 'Charleston, a farmhouse in Sussex, UK. Charleston was home to the Bloomsbury set, a whole host of various bohemian figures on the edge London society back in the early 1920's. And though both Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were practicing artists, the Reeds of 'Heidi' were not. They were wealthy, ardent patrons of art around Melbourne after the Second World War. They are still considered the most important benefactors of Modern Art here in Australia though they died in 1981, just ten days apart of one another. 

So Charleston and Heidi, both as a consequence, are full of artwork and are now run as art centers. Heidi however, has many shows during the year of different artists whereas Charleston is a private charitable Trust which maintains the house and gardens uniquely for the Bloomsbury set. 

                                                  self portrait by Vanessa Bell

I have been to Charleston several times over the years as I often went through Sussex. I have been to Heidi twice and it was on my first trip there that I discovered Sidney Nolan, the much venerated Australian artist. Inevitably, being bohemians, there was lots of gossip about the goings at Heidi especially since Melburnians were so very conservative back in the day. In fact, most artists not only fled Melbourne but Australia altogether. 

Sidney Nolan painted his very famous Ned Kelly series there at Heidi. It is an impressive series that I saw in Canberra years. It is so weirdly original, an iconic and memorable Australian motif of a thief no less! 

Over the years I have come to appreciate his creative life. I like so many of these Australian painters who came out of a 'White' Australia in the early part of the 20th century. He like a few others eventually left for London and the continent. He lived the rest of his life there. Apparently when he died in 1992 and his estate owed a fortune in taxes because he had always believed that artists shouldn't have to pay tax! Gotta love him for this alone! 

But it is easy to understand just how isolated these artists were from Modern Art. Australia was very far away, and it stills looms far away in the imaginations of Americans and Europeans. I know because my friends are still amazed that I would slip away from the northern hemisphere.

His work was varied and I cannot say that I relate too to well much of it but he was an artist who dedicated his life to his love of art, and for that too, I love him. 

Yet despite my lack of real enthusiasm for his much of his work, I am really crazy about this small fragment done on wood of the docks at St Kilda back in the 1940's. It is so small, so almost insignificant that I wonder if anyone pays any attention to it, but it holds magic for me. Its calligraphic power is at the heart of Modern Art. It is really seen, and comes from vision, something the Japanese would really appreciate in its direct response to Nature. Nolan found a simple and graphic solution to the motif of the docks. Moreover, the drawing is concise, precise; and its vision is practical. 

addendum; I realise that I already posted about this small work back in 2013! I discovered this by accident when looking for a clean photo of it online. I saw it on Google at L'air de rien and dated back in 2013 when I had taken a photo of it at Heidi, Ha Ha. 

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