Donald Friend, 1965

The reputation of Donald Friend has risen as the perspective of his place in Australian art of the 20th century has deepened. His was a career marked by early promise and fanfare and a well documented decline into ornament. Unlike Ian Fairweather, who was lionized for his ascetic wanderings, Friend’s Bali sojourn sealed his fate as a decorative decadent. The gravity of Friend’s undertakings were sometimes subsumed by the fact he made such good copy. Within the arid conformity of Australian painting in the 50s Friend posed a flamboyant alternative. Sometimes the ubiquity of his legend tends to outweigh his actual achievements and the subtlety of his skills: sixty years of drawing for example. Robert Hughes went for the colour in his monograph on Friend in 1964, describing him as “A regency rake born out of his time”. Yet it is that very cutting wit and blazing irreverence that made Friend capable of bold strokes and moments of radical innovation.

The impact of Italian, notable Sienese, early Renaissance painting upon Friend’s work was the result of years spent in Italy amassing a personal collection of icons. Who else would tackle Ned Kelly in the style of the Quattrocento, especially after Sid Nolan so obviously took ownership of this turf in 1947?

Friend’s small but biting work Hurry Edward, the Troops are Coming, 1965 (Lot 37) is compositionally pristine. The horse stands in the doorway as if awaiting The Annunciation. It is also littered with miniature allegorical details: a pair of boots on the floor, a wanted poster on the wall, the gun in its holster. And Kelly himself emerges resplendent from the bath, naked except for his helmet. The painting is simultaneously erotic, tense and comic, qualities not common to Australian painting before Pop or post modernism.

Offered in the same sale is Sidney Nolan’s First class Marksman (Lot 133), an image of Kelly created once the icon had almost become a brand for the artist. Nolan made Ned Kelly a motif for Modernism yet it was swiftly absorbed into the seemingly endless cultural thirst for Australiana. Somehow the subversive potential of the icon survives.: Ned Kelly continues to compel younger Australian artists. A exhibition held in Singapore in 2013 highlighted the Kelly myth by artists such as Regan Tamanui and Carrie Lyons . But no one (before Juan Davila) had presented the bush ranger as a gay icon or a naked saint and few have managed to paint him so tenderly since.

Sidney Nolan First Class MarksmanHistorically and within the art market, the value of Donald Friend has weighed heavily upon his skills as a draftsman and a diarist. The illustrated manuscript “Ayam 2 Kesayangan 1: A Miscellanea” sold for $181,125 in 1995 shortly after a retrospective of his work was mounted at the AGNSW. The hierarchy of painting over drawing in terms of value is somewhat distorted by Friend’s sheer output of great works on paper and the irregular and diverse nature of his painting. But it is precisely such eclectic verve that made him present for some of the more rebellious moments in Australian art history and granted him the ability to deliver a cultural slap with such elegant precision.

Both works will be included in Shapiro's Australian and International Art auction on Monday 8 December 2014.

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