Visual Arts / “Guns & Flowers”. eX de Medici and Sidney Nolan. At Canberra Museum and Gallery. Until March 31. Reviewed by KERRY-ANNE COUSINS.
THE work of two artists separated in time by more than 70 years are brought together in a seemingly unlikely pairing in this exhibition curated by Virginia Rigney at Canberra Museum and Gallery.
Sidney Nolan’s early work in this exhibition, given to the nation in 1974, was originally housed at the Nolan Gallery at Lanyon. It was moved to the city gallery in 2007. It contains some of his early Ned Kelly paintings from 1945/6 as well as works on paper such as the “Illuminations” series (1982). eX de Medici is a contemporary Canberra artist. In this exhibition are her recent series of large and exquisitely detailed watercolours.
What is surprisingly revealed are the deep links between the imagery and the conceptual ideas of each artist. Nolan’s images of flowers from “The Paradise Garden” series (c.a. 1971) resonate with the images of flowers that are a key symbol in eX de Medici’s works. They have both been influenced by the French 19th century poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine and both explore the role of violence in a colonial and cultural context.
The exhibition challenged what I had known about Nolan’s early work giving me a deeper insight not only into his imagery but the ideas behind it.
The helmet of Ned Kelly, such a potent symbol, can dominate our understanding of the Ned Kelly series.
In this new reading of Nolan’s work the emphasis moves from the potent symbol of Ned Kelly’s helmet to his images of guns. But as this exhibition makes clear the guns are significant.
The painting from Nolan’s “Illumination” series “Shooting of Rimbaud by Verlaine” (1982) is of an image of a gun pointed by Paul Verlaine at the head of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. It is paralleled by eX de Medici’s watercolour “Rimbaud /Verlaine” (2021) of an image of this same gun.
Nolan’s guns are painted with their triggers back to front – a deliberate anomaly from an artist once in the army.
eX de Medici embellishes her guns with swathes of ribbons, sensuously wrapped embroidered silk textiles and patterns of moths’ wings.
Can we see in Nolan’s guns that are disarmed and eX de Medici’s guns that are seductively decorated, the sugar coating of the bitter pill? The question of how do we exist with violence hovers over the exhibition like a miasma. This is an important exhibition that challenges us both emotionally and intellectually. It adds to a more profound understanding of the work of both artists and is not to be missed.
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