Sex and ping pong: Sidney Nolan and the Gallery School

By Dr Janine Burke
Honorary (Senior Fellow) at the Victorian College of the Arts

Albert Tucker, In the Library: John Reed, Sidney Nolan and Sunday Reed, c.1942, gelatin silver photograph, 30.4 x 40.2 cm. Gift of Barbara Tucker, 2001.

The centenary of Sidney Nolan's birth will be marked globally, but what can we learn from his time as a student at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School?

22 April 2017 is Sidney Nolan’s centenary. During the 1930s, Australia’s best-known artist studied at the National Gallery Art School, the direct predecessor to the Victorian College of the Arts, which is currently celebrating 150 years of art in Melbourne. In juxtaposing Nolan’s history and the school’s, narratives about art practice and pedagogy, as well as Melbourne’s cultural networks, begin to emerge.

Not that Nolan was a star student: he appeared to treat his schooling with a dilettantish indifference. When the celebrated artist Albert Tucker asked Nolan about his education at the Gallery School, he replied, “All I learned about was sex and ping pong”.

 Photograph of Sidney Nolan at State Library of Victoria, by Albert Tucker, c1940. Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Sidney Nolan  by Albert Tucker, c1940. State Library of Victoria.

The Gallery School was the most accessible of Melbourne’s art schools. The fees were cheaper than at George Bell's modernist school or at the Melbourne Institute of Technology – though during the 1930s Great Depression some students, such as Tucker, found it impossible to finance their education there.

Acceptance to the school was gained through a folio of work but, as most applicants were successful, there was a large student intake of men and women from a variety of social backgrounds. The casual nature of entry time ­– enrolment could take place at any point during the year – coupled with the availability of night classes enabled students to complete the course part-time.

The Gallery was a useful place for a young artist to be: it provided studio space that finances or unwilling parents may have put out of reach, a basic form of tuition at cheap rates, and a circle of like-minded friends.

The Gallery School was Melbourne's most prestigious art education centre – responsible for the training of Tom Roberts, Fred McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Jane Sutherland – founding members of the Heidelberg School. But its reputation had eroded.

The artist Lionel Lindsay christened it “The School of  Smudge” while teacher and painter George Bell castigated the staff and students for being commercial artists who produced saleable paintings, mere commodities. What had gone wrong?

In 1936, the art critic J. S. McDonald was appointed Director of the National Gallery and Master of the School.

JS MacDonald Self Portrait 1922
J. S. MacDonald, Self-portrait, 1922. National Gallery of Victoria.

McDonald was a notorious reactionary as far as modern art was concerned. He proved the point when, a few years later, he refused to allow an exhibition of modern art, curated by Herald art critic Basil Burdett, to be displayed there. The landmark show, known as the Herald Exhibition of French and British Painting, opened at Melbourne Town Hall in June 1939, not long before the outbreak of World War II.

McDonald was a member of the club of powerful older men who ran the Australian art world. This clique, which included Sir Arthur Streeton, exercised a deadening effect on local art. Opposed to post-impressionism, disgusted by Picasso, insular, ill-informed and smug, their taste dominated gallery acquisitions policies, prizes, criticism and the art market. They were the group of men against whom Nolan, Tucker, Joy Hester and their radical cohort in the Contemporary Art Society would soon be pitted in battle.

Experimentation in style or approach was not encouraged at the Gallery School. Nor did teachers offer students a philosophy of art or educate them about its history. The course was wholly painstaking practice. There was an insistence on careful modelling of form with minute attention paid to the effects of light and shade and a sombre and descriptive use of colour, which guaranteed a thorough knowledge of the artist's craft. The course had remained unchanged for decades.

Phyl Waterhouse, Alannah Coleman and Charles Bush. Life class room at the National Gallery School in 1935, Argus
Phyl Waterhouse, Alannah Coleman and Charles Bush. Still-life classroom at the National Gallery School in 1935. Photo by Argus. State Library of Victoria Foundation.

Though the School’s course was restrictive, its atmosphere was relaxed, even casual. The school day began at 10am and the students worked through until 4pm. Night classes started at 7pm.

Students would shop at the Victoria Market and bring food to cook on an old stove in the kitchen. “Recreation” was mainly discussion about art but there were table-tennis facilities where Nolan regularly challenged others to play.

Nolan had sporadically attended evening classes at the Gallery School since 1934 but a chance encounter in 1936 with two bright young types – John Sinclair and Clifford Bayliss, winner of the 1935 National Gallery of Victoria travelling scholarship – made him re-enrol. Nolan met up with Bayliss and Sinclair on a return cycle ride from Sydney, along the road near Goulburn, and they encouraged him to get more involved with the School.

Nolan's treatment of the figure was unconventional. He simply couldn't draw according to the standards of prescriptive realism. He recognised that this lack of talent in drawing the human form would preclude him from earning a living as a commercial artist as Tucker, and so many other struggling artists, did.

That was why, apart from revelling in discussions with his new friends, the State Library of Victoria proved the big attraction for Nolan. Well, apart from ping pong. Nolan recalled, “You know I’d go in to draw and then I’d draw for half an hour and then I’d think, Oh, bugger it, I’ll go up and read”. Though Nolan read voraciously, he was not so much a reverent student as one who flitted through Kierkegaard, Gide, Rimbaud, Rilke, Dostoyevsky, Lawrence and Blake, intuitively selecting what inspired or intrigued him.

Reading Room State Library
Domed Reading Room, State Library of Victoria. Sears’ Studios photography. C1915. State Library of Victoria Archive.

One of his earliest works, Illustration for Ulysses (1936, National Gallery of Australia), pays homage to James Joyce's grand modernist statement of the same name that reconfigured the twentieth-century novel.

Sidney Nolan, Illustration for Ulysses, 1936. Image copyright of Sidney Nolan Trust
Sidney Nolan, Illustration for Ulysses, 1936. © Sidney Nolan Trust.

The Gallery School in Swanston Street was located at the heart of Melbourne's bohemian hub. Nolan embraced it by moving into a studio at the corner of Russell and Lonsdale Streets, shared with John Sinclair and Noel Counihan, where jazz musician Graeme Bell recalled he had “many a boisterous jam session”.

Tucker and Hester lived in a studio-apartment at 26 Little Collins Street, while Gino Nibbi's Leonardo bookshop at 170 Little Collins Street was more than a place to browse. In Rome, Nibbi belonged to a cultural circle that included the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. He imported postcard prints, reproductions and books covering contemporary art.

It was at the Gallery that Nolan met his first wife. Elizabeth Paterson was a painter and a strikingly attractive young woman. Nolan admired her work, reflecting that his own ambitions lead him to ignore the fact that Elizabeth was a good artist as well, attempting to develop her own style. Elizabeth's father was unhappy about his daughter's attachment to Nolan, whom he regarded as a wastrel.

Elizabeth Paterson
Elizabeth Paterson. C1930. Source unknown.

Though Nolan and Hester had known each other only distantly at the Gallery School, their destinies became entwined. By the early 1940s, both had found the same patrons ­– Sunday and John Reed – whose home at Heide proved a refuge during the war years. Both became fervent admirers of one another's work, Hester declaring in a 1943 letter to former Gallery student Yvonne Lennie, “Nolan is the Cezanne of Australia”. Both worked in the same assured and rapid manner: Nolan on the dining-room table at Heide where he completed the Ned Kelly series, Hester sitting by the fire-place producing drawing after drawing – offering their patrons the privilege of seeing first-rate art being produced in front of their eyes.

Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly, 1946 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Sunday Reed, 1977 NGA
Sidney Nolan, Ned Kelly, 1946 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Sunday Reed, 1977 NGA. © Sidney Nolan Trust.

Nolan took what he needed from the Gallery School – crucial were the networks of friendship, the alliances that forged Melbourne modernism. In 1938, Nolan was a founding member of  the Contemporary Art Society and the art world was galvanised by debate and dissent.

What the Gallery taught Nolan was what each artist must learn. What to reject. What is inessential to one’s vision. How best to capitalise on talents and to discard or disguise failings. How to be part of a group, a generation of like-minded artists. How to consciously change the culture for the better. How to be supportive of one another, and then how to define one’s self against that group. That is, how to mature, how to transform what you have learned into a vivid, living, individual statement that will nourish and intrigue you for the rest of your life.

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