Sidney Nolan’s St Kilda paintings: the ‘innocence’ of a man in his 20s with a wife and two mistresses

Feb 23, 2021

The Canberra Museum+Gallery is exhibiting several of Sidney Nolan’s St Kilda paintings until March 30, complete with a Children’s Trail for the nippers. But are the paintings as innocent as the stories that have built up around them – curated by Nolan himself – suggest?

Immediately after the eye-opening 1939 Exhibition of British and Contemporary Art at the Melbourne Town Hall, in 1940 the 23-year-old Sidney Nolan painted a Picasso-esque Head of a Woman, Luna Park St Kilda, the most frankly erotic image in an ouvre that is said to have amounted to 40,000 paintings over 50 years.

This was the last year of his first marriage, and he was embarking on his affair with his muse of the war years of the 1940s, Sunday Reed. Some have called it a menage a trois with Sunday’s husband, John, but remarks Nolan made towards the end of an interview in London with Michael Heyward in 1991 indicate that they were being careful not to let John realise – or acknowledge – that he was being cuckolded in his own home and when Sunday travelled with art supplies to the Wimmera where Nolan was posted after his conscription into the Army.

Nolan had grown up in St Kilda. In the early 1940s he was mostly staying with the Reeds at their farmlet Heide out at Heidleberg. He painted Luna Park and its Big Dipper, Waterwheel and Merry Go Round together with the Merry Go Round on the Esplanade and St Kilda Pier, still under the influence of the European surrealists and abstractionists. Those paintings earned him an invitation to work on the stage sets for the French ballet dancer Serge Lifare’s Sydney production of Icare.

But in April 1942 the now 25-year-old Nolan was sent by the Australian wartime Army to dry, dusty Dimboola in the Wimmera to guard stores. It was there that in 1942 he painted Bathers (now in the National Gallery of Victoria) depicting four nude sunbathers and a swimmer. For all his reputation for lustiness, this is a rare case where Nolan painted genitals, albeit impressionistically.

In 1943 he painted The Bathers (now at the Heide Museum of Modern Art near Melbourne), with even less gender specificity despite the nudity as was also the case in his 1945 Bathers, St Kilda Pier.

Nolan painted at least 10 pictures of St Kilda after he went AWOL from the Army in mid-1944 and returned to St Kilda and its environs under the pseudonym of Robin Murray. Most of them were painted while Australia was still at war. They include the couples canoodling in Catani Gardens and nude bathers in Under the Pier.

These last two paintings are among those being exhibited by the Canberra Museum and Gallery until the end of March.

Although Nolan’s St Kilda paintings are often taken to be sentimental memories of an urchin’s childhood in ‘kitsch heaven’ as Nolan himself called it, they were painted during the war years. The St Kilda Historical Society points out in a section titled ‘A Place of Sensuous Resort‘:

‘In 1938 ‘mixed’ bathing of both sexes, legal since 1927, was restricted to weekends and only in the ladies’ section. However, during World War II (1939-45) relaxed moral standards allowed nude sunbathing. 1945 is also the moment when Sidney Nolan, living in St Kilda, was painting the beach and in works such as Bathers. Several figures appear to be sunbathing nude in this picture.’

In late 1948 Nolan was taken up by Sir Kenneth Clark, then the doyen of the British art world on a flying visit to Sydney. He and his second wife, Cynthia – the sister of Sunday Reed’s husband John – went to London in 1950.

Twenty five years or so later Clark narrated the film made by Les Seymour to mark Nolan’s 60th birthday in 1977. In the first 15 minutes he relates how Nolan, a ‘national hero of Orstralia’, was ‘a largely self taught painter who chose to paint the life of the parks and fun fairs of his childhood playgrand’ in a style that was ‘like children’s paintings though far more skilful’.

Clark described Nolan’s St Kilda as a ‘raffish, rather disorderly place full of unpredictable fun’ as shown in Nolan’s paintings of the 1940s which Clark clearly sees as often erotic.

Clark wasn’t sure if Nolan was deliberately painting like a child or not – but they were not innocent paintings. They were celebrations of the St Kilda vibe of the 1940s by a man in his mid to late twenties who had one wife and two mistresses under his belt and who absconded from the wartime Australian Army in mid-1944.

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