Sidney Nolan: Date Night at the Heide Museum of Modern Art

Date destinations are difficult to decide on. You can propose a sit-down meal at a restaurant with photogenic platters. Or, you can prop against a dimly-lit bar where the bartender knows your usual. Dates in the gardens of Heide, however, is an entirely different experience. With its spacious fields, in-situ sculptures, and housemuseums, Heide MoMA is an elegant setting for meetings and, perchance, romance. At the inaugural Date Night, guests are served a selection of excellent cheese and wine, along with conversation topics. Afterwards, guests proceed through Heide I exhibitions for a private, after-hours viewing of “Nolan at the Newsagent.” This makes for a date that is a cross between garden party and art salon, without the delicate china and speeches. Whether you have a passing or keen interest in art, you will find your kind in gatherings here.

Heide Museum of Modern Art is to Melbourne what Bloomsbury is to London: a place defined by a clique of iconoclasts. Formerly a dairy farm, the land was purchased in the 1930s by Sunday Baillieu and John Reed, where the couple envisioned a setting to cultivate art and letters. Part private residence and part co-working space, Heide was a significant incubator for Australian modernist architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, and prose.

Sheffield’s newsagency in Heidelberg, July 1942, featuring Sidney Nolan’s second solo exhibition. John and Sunday Reed papers, State Library of Victoria, photographer unknown.

Now showing at the weatherboard housemuseum Heide I, “Nolan at the Newsagent” commemorates an exhibition originally held at a local Heidelberg newsagent. In July 1942, this pop-up fine art exhibition was a novel idea, to display modern art at a non-institutional venue, readily accessible to the neighbourhood community. Sidney Nolan was developing a surrealist, primitivist style of expressionism; he had already produced costume and set designs for the original Ballet Russes during their national tour. His exhibits at the newsagent were experiments on how to depict Australian subjects, using techniques derived from Picasso, Cezanne, Klee, Matisse, and Rousseau. As well, an antique method was inferred in Nolan’s choice of painting surfaces (hessian on plywood, pulp board, burlap, and later, slate) from a practice dating to panel-paintings of 600BC.

Golden Landscape, 1942. Oil on hessian on plywood, 38.6 x 50.6 cm. Bequest of John and Sunday Reed, 1982.

 “Nolan at the Newsagent” features domestic scenes at Heide (of cats, hens, and native landscapes) in the style of 19th-century “en plein air” principles. Exemplars of the style are artists Turner, Monet, Degas, van Gogh, and Pissaro, each of whom strove to represent natural light and atmospheric luminosity through their outdoor painting. Nolan sought to capture specific qualities of Australian landscapes, distinct and differentiated from those in Europe. An important difference is sunlight itself – starker and harsher in the antipodean climate. Such styles had the potential shock of the new for a Melbourne society still accustomed to the Old Masters, let alone patrons unprepared for seeing fine art at their local newsagent. Anticipating a puzzled audience, John Reed wrote the following for the exhibition: “You may have thought they were very unusual, and perhaps not at all like other paintings you know, and you may even have heard someone say (as I did) that some of them looked like children’s paintings. … I think it will help you if you will just look on these paintings as lovely combinations of colour and form.”

Heide I. Original onstruction in 1870s, added to Victoria Heritage Register (VHR H0687) in 1988.

Heide I is also showing Nolan works from the same period as the 1942 newsagent exhibition. One of his earliest iterations of a signature motif is ‘Figure and Horse.’ The primitivist aesthetic of this work – duochrome colour, flat perspective, graphic abstraction – are modernist elements which challenged notions of classical figurative art. (That same year, MoMA New York featured Picasso, Klee, and Matisse across 41 exhibitions, championing their work as the vanguard of modernist art.)  In this work, both man and horse are without visible visual context, such as to be universal in depiction. It is a precursor to Nolan’s iconic rendition of Ned Kelly astride a steed, which remains today one of the most recognisable depictions of an Australian symbol.

For lovers of art and lovers alike, experiencing Heide after-hours is a engaging taster of modern art. Then as in now, we are in the company of local vanguards, who distill from classical traditions a foremost Australian contemporary form.

– Maloti

Maloti writes about art and books.

Making History: Nolan at the Newsagent‘ runs until 20 May, with a guided tour on March 21 at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen. Entry is ticketed for exhibitions inclusive of events. The venue is accessible.

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Heide.
Image credits: Heide MoMA.