Austria 1902 – Australia 1985

  • Australia from 1939

Cynthia Reed - writer, Sidney Nolan's wife 1945 Place made: Kings Cross, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: photographs, gelatin silver photograph

Primary Insc: Not signed. Not dated. Titled verso, upper left, black ballpoint pen, 'Cynthia Reed - writer / Sydney [sic] Nolan's wife'
Secondary Insc: inscribed verso, centre, pencil, 'Kings X / 5 [circled]'
Dimensions: printed image 29.8 h x 23.9 w cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of the estate of Margaret Michaelis-Sachs 1986
Accession No: NGA 86.1384.249
  • During the war years Margaret Michaelis, an Austrian-born photographer who settled in Sydney in 1939, was categorised as an ‘enemy alien’ and officials closely monitored her professional and personal activities. By the time this portrait was taken, the Australian Government’s surveillance had all but ceased. However, with the visit to her studio by Violet Cynthia Nolan Hansen Reed (as she was named in the Security Report), Michaelis attracted official attention once again. Surprising as it may seem, this fact helps to explain why this is such an impressive portrait.

    As a portraitist, Michaelis frequently photographed women but it was a certain kind of woman that elicited her strongest response. Cynthia Reed had the appropriate qualities in full measure. She was an independent, professional woman and was well known for her strength of character and radical political views. Such characteristics could be applied equally to Michaelis, who had resolutely pursued her career against the backdrop of fascism in Europe and had mixed in anarchist circles in Berlin and Barcelona in the 1930s.

    Michaelis’s portrait gains its power from the rapport established between photographer and subject. With Reed’s active collaboration, she could create what she regarded as a truly modern portrait, one that went beyond the description of her subject’s physical features to reveal her ‘essence’, her inner truth. Working in the studio, Michaelis exerted full control over compositional and lighting elements, choosing an approach that was characteristically austere, pared down to essentials.

    Reed presented herself to the camera with candour, her open pose and facial expression signifying an enticing form of complicity in the photographic exchange. Yet her manner was at once intimate and media savvy. The portrait is beguiling in its ambiguity for it could as easily be a private portrait as a public commission.

    As the Security Report confirmed, Cynthia Reed had recently entered a new phase of her life, as the wife of Australian artist Sidney Nolan. Following her marriage, Cynthia’s face was to become public territory. Australian writer and friend, Patrick White, famously referred to her ‘patrician, increasingly ravaged face’ in his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass. Cynthia herself came to wish that her face ‘was a secret instead of a confession’.1 What Margaret Michaelis achieves in her portrait of Cynthia Reed is a tantalising amalgam of these two modes of being.

    Helen Ennis, 2002.

    1Cynthia Nolan, A Bride for St Thomas, quoted in M.E. McGuire, All things Opposite: Essays on Australian Art, Prahan: Champion, 1995, p.23.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002