Romance & Theatre: The Work of Norman Lindsay

Norman Lindsay led a bohemian lifestyle in the early 1900s, enjoying theatre, live music, galleries, and the bustling café society. In the interwar years especially,
this romantic escape was far removed from the reality of urban life.

After joining a dedicated circle of poets and writers who were committed to the classical revival in Australia, Lindsay felt encouraged to explore mythological representations in his art. He was particularly focused on Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine, who celebrated all things relating to pleasure. Lindsay was utterly fascinated with this new realm, finding he could combine the theatrical and poetic with the mythical – a dual focus that would follow him throughout the course of his career.

This delicate watercolour, The Performance 1921, depicts a procession of female beauties gracing the stage, many adorned in theatre costume as they emerge from beyond the curtain. Anticipation grows for us, the audience, as the curtain is drawn back and the performance unfolds. The narrative is direct from Lindsay’s imagination, revealing a complex layering of theatre, romance and desire. Infused a with Pre-Raphaelite like romanticism, Lindsay’s watercolours are as gentle as they are dramatic.

Heavy with eroticism and sensuality, the precision in which Lindsay has detailed his performers is mesmerising, with no detail left untended. While inherently softer in colour, this work demonstrates astute restraint by Lindsay. Detailed areas, such as the subject’s garments, the texture of the curtain, and the floral decorations contrast with the lighter flesh tones and deep blue of the night.

Norman Lindsay (1879-1969)
Garden of Felicity 1921, watercolour, 39 x 40 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Gift of Howard Hinton 1927
© Estate of Norman Lindsay

This soft and subtle exploration of secret pleasure is comparable to works in the Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection such as A Roman Night 1916 and Garden of Felicity 1921, all demonstrating Lindsay’s superb ability and confidence utilising the medium of watercolour and his clever restraint of colour and definition for dramatic effect.

Attracting both praise and controversy, Lindsay’s handling of the watercolour medium is what enabled him to produce imagery of such delicacy and immense detail. His mastery of the medium and creative imagination gave him a vibrant pathway to become one of Australia’s most documented and discussed 20th Century artists.

LUCY FOSTER / Art Specialist

Banner Image: NORMAN LINDSAY (1879-1969) The Performance 1921,
watercolour on paper, 55 x 52.5cm | $30,000-35,000

July 2021