Sidney NOLAN
Australia 1917-1992
worked England and Australia from 1951

The River Kuei series, 1981
Photo-offset lithograph, printed in colour, edition 72/99
72.0 x 57.0 cm image [sight]
inscribed lower right: Nolan

The River Kuei series, 1981
Photo-offset lithograph, printed in colour, edition 72/99
72.0 x 57.0 cm image [sight]
inscribed lower right: Nolan

The River Kuei series, 1981
Photo-offset lithograph, printed in colour, edition 72/99
72.0 x 57.0 cm image [sight]
inscribed lower right: Nolan

The River Kuei series, 1981
Photo-offset lithograph, printed in colour, edition 72/99
72.0 x 57.0 cm image [sight]
inscribed lower right: Nolan

Sidney Nolan was a restless traveller. As a young artist he married Cynthia, the sister of John Reed, the lawyer, and publisher of the Angry Penguins contemporary literary and artistic magazine, who with his wife Sunday, was co-founder of the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne.
Cynthia had travelled in Europe and produced some autobiographical writings, and in 1951, when she and Sidney settled in London it became a base from which they travelled for the rest of their lives.

Nolan visited drought stricken outback New South Wales, Central Australia and the tropical north in the late 1940s and early 1950s and these trips inspired the well-known series of inland landscapes and carcases, and another of tropical imagery. Trips throughout Europe include visits to Greece and Turkey, and later visits to the United States, Antarctica, and Africa, similarly inspired his painting. Simultaneously Cynthia wrote and published her observations and accounts of their travels in several illuminating books which provide important insights into Nolan’s work.

Nolan first visited China in 1965 but it was a visit in 1978, following Cynthia’s death in 1976 and his marriage to Mary Perceval, Arthur Boyd’s sister, in 1978, that was to result in a late flowering of work. In that year a visit was made to southern China where he explored part of the mountainous area of the Silk Route including the painted decoration of Buddhist caves. In admiration of Song artists of the 10th century, Nolan began to paint Chinese bronzes, jades, and ceramics, following a tradition familiar to Chinese artists who delight in honouring ancient works of art in their painting. He also began a series of paintings of the Kuei River which flows through the area of Guilin famous for its mountainous scenery and treacherous gorges. More mountainous river scenery was explored in 1980 when as a guest of the Chinese Government, Nolan visited the Yangtze Gorges.

By the late 1970s arthritis was troubling Nolan and he found it difficult to hold brushes, especially the large ones necessary to work on the huge canvases he wanted to paint. On a visit to the National Gallery of Australia in the mid-1980s I remember him being excited about the fact that he could hold a spray-paint can and by using cut-out shapes could ‘paint’ again. He had a few slightly battered Polaroid photographs which he kept pulling out of a pocket to show the curators. His excitement at exploring a ‘new’ medium was infectious. But the medium was not new to him, because later that day he explained that an Illustration for Ulysses painted in 1936 had been the result of his spraying ink around his fingers which left mysterious marks on the paper. Inventing and re-inventing the ways in which he worked had long been a pleasure for Nolan.

In 1981 the Art Gallery of New South Wales mounted the exhibition, Nolan in China, showing for the first time some of the huge canvasses that were inspired by the Kuei River landscape. In the same year a portfolio of photo-offset lithographs in an edition of 99 was issued by The Pot Still Press, Sydney. These show Nolan’s delight in the strange mountainous landscape through which the river flows and on which shallow-draft junks provide transport for people and goods through dangerous waters. These prints made his work available in a smaller scale, while simultaneously allowing Nolan to explore another medium.

In the prints Nolan captures in brilliant colour and generous gestures in paint the exotic landscape. Mountains swathed in mists and clouds rise out of the river and along its shores. The unlikely brilliant colours give the landscapes a magical cartoon quality. But the junks and their boatmen go about their business as they have done for centuries and were painted by earlier Chinese artists as toys for nature to play with.

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