14 April 2022
Curator Steven Tonkin takes a journey through Sidney Nolan’s Paradise Garden, to coincide with Heide Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise.
Sir Sidney Nolan is widely recognised as one of Australia’s greatest painters of the 20th century. Born in 1917, and largely self-taught, he became a central figure in Melbourne’s avant-garde art scene of the 1940s. Nolan’s art of this period included his now celebrated Ned Kelly series, painted at Heide between 1945 and 1947. Like other artists of his generation, he sought creative inspiration in Europe, leaving Australia in 1950. While he spent much of his later career in England, Australia remained an enduring source of inspiration and subject matter.
Nolan was a prolific artist with interests spanning art, literature, music and the performing arts, and by the 1960s was established and well-connected within English arts scene. In 1968, Nolan embarked upon his ambitious Paradise Garden in response to British composer Benjamin Britten’s cantata ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’. This, in turn, had been inspired by the poet Christopher Smart’s fragmentary ‘psalms’, praising God and His creations from the humblest on earth to the mighty Heavens:
For the flowers are great blessings…
For flowers have great virtues for all the senses…
For there is a language of flowers…
For flowers are musical in [visual] harmony…
Sidney Nolan during the installation of 'Paradise Garden' at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1972
Photo by Ian Showell/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Nolan likened Paradise Garden to The Garden of Eden. Its genesis can be traced to the artist’s own domestic garden in London which provided the initial source material. However, as the work grew in ambition, Nolan’s botanical selection broadened to include identifiably Australian wildflowers. Plants such as Sturt’s Desert Pea and tropical bush ferns transformed it into a quintessentially Australian artwork. In its overall visual narrative, pictorial shoots emerge from a dark ground, followed by a multitude of colourful starbursts as the floral imagery reaches majestic bloom, then finally a compositional withering and decay to complete the metaphorical cycle of nature, life and love.
Three framed panels from Sidney Nolan’s 'Paradise Garden', 1968-70, mixed media on card
Gift of Sir Sidney and Lady Mary Nolan, 1982
Arts Centre Melbourne, Public Art Collection
Nolan first exhibited a section of Paradise Garden at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival of music and art in 1968. It took him another two years to complete the entire suite, which when finished comprised 1320 individual artworks, displayed in groups of six, presented in 220 frames. When Paradise Garden was first displayed in its entirety in 1970 at the recently opened National Gallery of Victoria building, it measured 4 ½ metres in height and nearly 50 metres in width. Nolan then exhibited it at the Tate Gallery in London in 1972 and at his retrospective in Dublin in 1973, after which Paradise Garden was lost from public view for nearly a decade.
'Paradise Garden' as exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria, 1970, as illustrated in 'Profile of the Gallery', National Gallery of Victoria, 1978
Paradise Garden is a monumental creative achievement. Dramatic in scale, with compositional allusions to theatre and music, it is an artwork perfect for a performing arts centre. In a turn of good fortune, during a brief visit to Melbourne in 1982, Nolan dropped by the office of George Fairfax, then General Manager of the Victorian Arts Centre (now Arts Centre Melbourne), to tell him that he wished to donate Paradise Garden. Fairfax asked whether Nolan would mind putting something in writing, at which point the artist grabbed a scrap of paper and scribbled: “After some years it gives me a lot of pleasure to finally see Paradise Garden at the Victorian Arts Centre and I would like to now formally give the paintings to the Trust,” signed “Sidney” (adding “Nolan” as an afterthought).
'Paradise Garden' as displayed in Hamer Hall stalls foyer, 1982–2010
Artworks celebrating the intersections between the visual and performing arts were integral to the creative vision that stage designer John Truscott had for the foyers of Arts Centre Melbourne. Nolan’s generous gift was a foundation pillar for today’s Public Art Collection, which also includes significant artworks by Nolan’s contemporaries, including Arthur Boyd, Roger Kemp, Donald Laycock, John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart. Paradise Garden was given a leading role as an artistic link between the newly opened venues – one section was originally displayed in the Hamer Hall (formerly Melbourne Concert Hall) stalls foyer, while the remainder is located in the State Theatre circle foyer of the Theatres Building.
'Paradise Garden' as currently displayed in the State Theatre circle foyer and St Kilda Road Gallery, Theatres Building
Photographer Carla Gottgens, 2014
To support Heide Museum of Modern Art’s Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise exhibition, Arts Centre Melbourne has loaned a small selection of artworks from Paradise Garden. This exhibition presents a new perspective on Paradise Garden within the context of Nolan’s personal and historical connections to Heide. The intimacy of the display allows visitors to inspect and appreciate the individual artworks, which clearly reveal Nolan’s painterly skills, and masterful and expressive use of colour. Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise can be seen at Heide until 13 June 2022.
Exhibition installation view, 'Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise', Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne 2022
Photographer Christian Capurro, Courtesy Heide Museum of Modern Art
Sidney Nolan’s Paradise Garden is a celebration of art, theatre and music, and is one of the masterpieces in Art Centre Melbourne’s Public Art Collection. However, not since the early 1970s (now over half a century ago) has it been displayed in its entirety as a complete artwork. The Reimagining of Arts Centre Melbourne and transformation of the Melbourne Arts Precinct over the next decade potentially offers an opportunity to once again show Paradise Garden in all its monumental glory for audiences and visitors to marvel at and appreciate. This is an aspiration which would finally realise Sidney Nolan’s ultimate vision for Paradise Garden at Arts Centre Melbourne.