Poles apart: How Australia’s most controversial painting came to Brisbane – and when it might return

Brisbane artist Stephen Nothling’s latest exhibition recalls the time Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles visited Brisbane.

Nov 10, 2023, updated Nov 10, 2023
Nothling's Modern Fiction has a distinct air of Jackson Pollock, whose Blue Poles once visited Brisbane and may do again before too long.

Nothling's Modern Fiction has a distinct air of Jackson Pollock, whose Blue Poles once visited Brisbane and may do again before too long.

Painting Brisbane with a Jackson Pollock sky is something perhaps only local artist Stephen Nothling could pull off. Nothling is much loved for his floral paintings and for his gorgeous evocations of suburban Highgate Hill and other inner suburbs.

And although he is a figurative painter,  Nothling is a big fan of the famed American artist Jackson Pollock (an abstract expressionist) and he loves Pollock’s classic work Blue Poles. That’s the vast mural-sized painting that caused all the fuss when Gough Whitlam bought it for the National Gallery of Australia in 1973 at a cost of $1.3million. People were outraged at the time.

But it has been a pretty good investment and is now worth around $500 million.

Of course, we have to go to Canberra to see it, but when I interviewed NGA director Nick Mitzevich on a visit to the national capital just before Covid hit he hinted to me that he was thinking of taking Blue Poles on a national tour and last year that possibility was mentioned again as the NGA embarks on a campaign of lending works to the nation. Fingers crossed.

I thought it would be so good to see it here in Brisbane, but here’s the thing I didn’t know it has been here before, as Nothling recalls in his latest show at Woolloongabba Art Gallery.

The exhibition is called  Mostly Fine in the South East, a reference to weather reports on the ABC which he is often glued to since his daughter Lily is a journalist with the national broadcaster.

And there is a lovely painting titled Mostly Fine in the South East, a Brisbane skyline with a gorgeous blue sky, a few fluffy clouds and two humungous roses floating along with the clouds. This is classic Nothling.

But the hero piece of the exhibition, which includes streetscapes and portraits and some retro goodies, is Modern Fiction.

This is the vision splendid: Brisbane’s iconic modernist apartment building, Torbreck on Dornoch Terrace, Highgate Hill, which Nothling has painted many times before,  but never like this, with a Jackson Pollock sky as the backdrop.

It’s a sky inspired by his love of Pollock and his discovery that, well, actually Blue Poles has already been to Brisbane.

Nothling discovered this and some retro posters about the event (which he has used in a painting) by looking at historical information on the NGA website.

“I discovered that the painting toured Australia and was displayed at Brisbane City Hall from June 7 until August 2 in 1974,” he says. “Having some of my own work in the same building some 50 years later created a tenuous link.” (Nothling had a stunning exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane in 2015 called The Last Street in Highgate Hill.)

He created Modern Fiction as a memorial to Pollock’s work and the visit to Brisbane of Blue Poles, although he points out that his Pollock sky is not an attempt to replicate Blue Poles but aims to evoke Pollock and memorialise the painting and the Brisbane he loves to paint.

“I have painted this view of Torbreck several times and thought it would  be good to add this Pollock-inspired background instead of the sky,” Nothling says.

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“I’ve stood before a few Jackson Pollock paintings, including some in the US, and find them as timelessly unfathomable as the sky. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would and I threw my back out doing it.”

That’s because he did it Pollock-style, with the painting on the ground while he slung mural paint at it. The effect is impressive and it’s a nice homage to what is arguably Australia’s most famous painting.

And the funny thing is that at the exhibition opening, Nothling spoke to a couple of people who had seen Blue Poles in Brisbane in 1974. And while I was at the gallery interviewing another artist, Hollie, (she has always been known professionally by a singular moniker) came in to view the show and reported she had seen it, too,  on a school excursion.

I wasn’t even aware it had been here but, then again, I was a teenage surfie attending Miami State High School on the Gold Coast at the time and culture wasn’t high on the agenda.

But I wonder how many readers saw it back then? Quite a few of you, I imagine.

It’s nice to think it might tour again. In the meantime, we have Stephen Nothling’s exhibition and it is a delight.

Stephen Nothling – Mostly Fine in the South East, until December 2, Woolloongabba Art Gallery, 613 Stanley St, Woolloongabba

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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