Let’s continue our consideration of the matter of style over subject matter in painters’ use of photography…
In this regard, Sidney Nolan can usefully compared with Russell Drysdale, since he also documented drought and remote Australian places. Both artists were affected by the suicide of a person close to them.
Photography was central to Nolan’s creative process too; he reputedly hacked a camera so that he could produce panoramic views of landscape, and very late in his career in the 1980s used the Quantel Paintbox, the emerging video-based computer-driven graphic imaging technology since superseded by Photoshop. Photography was an extension of his experimental use of a range of non-traditional materials and application methods, and supports ranging from used cardboard and Masonite. Apprenticed when he was thirteen to a sign painter, he was experienced in the use of commercial, industrial and household paints, with additives and dryers, crayon wax and spray paint; he was one of the first artists of his generation to largely abandon traditional oil paint on canvas (see here).
Between the National Library of Australia and the Sidney Nolan Trust, his photographic archive is almost completely preserved, but yet to be studied intensively. Their formats include some technologies which only emerged during Nolan’s career. In variety they encompass film prints, digital prints, polaroids, transparencies, negatives, and glass plates.
He photographed his artwork, at first in black and white, then in colour slides from the 1950s onward, and Polaroids both monochrome and colour. After he first traveled outside Australia in 1950 he made 35mm transparencies documenting his widespread travels to Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Antarctica, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, France, China, Indonesia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Greece.
In 1962 he photographed stark, diabolical black forms shrouded in deep snow under leaden skies at Auschwitz concentration camp for paintings he decided he could not show. Sidney Nolan: The Colour of the Sky – Auschwitz Paintings at last appeared 12 August—26 September 2021 in Herefordshire, UK at the Rodd gallery in the Jacobean manor house which was the last home of Sidney and his wife Mary. This year from 21 July–23 August, 50 of the works were on public display in Australia for the first time, in the Sydney Jewish Museum’s exhibition Shaken To His Core: The Untold Story Of Nolan’s Auschwitz.
Nolan also made Polaroids in London during 1973-1976 as reference material or as a form of visual diary with annotations on the back recording date and location as well as remarks about artworks either past, in progress or future works. The locations of these are either in Australia or in the ‘Australian ghettos’ of Putney, Fulham Palace Road, Shepherd’s Bush and Earl’s Court; of motorways, still life, police horses, Disney stickers on cars, things that reminded him Cézanne, and, significant to the idea of the photograph itself, some labelled for a triggered a memory of poet “Emily Dickinson’s ‘death would not stop for me.'”
On return to Australia he visited author Patrick White; one set of photographs from 16 July 1975 is labelled on the envelope “Manoly flea on cross PW as horseman with spear.” The latest set held in the NLA is cryptically labelled “Lassiter crafter Aeroplane card Damage tank N.T. Capricorn, Black Hole, Kelly painting TH photograph, dig, miners” and, indicative of their estrangement, was made in the Northern Territory while his wife of 28 years, Cynthia, was in a London hotel where she swallowed a fatal dose of barbiturates. The Polaroid was a medium he took up again in the 1980s and 90s, examples of which are found in archives of the Sidney Nolan Trust.
Accompanied by Cynthia and her daughter Jinx, Nolan had traveled in and over remote areas of Australia during June 1948, by truck, train, aeroplane and boat, inland across New South Wales to Adelaide, across the central desert to Darwin.
In interview with the Adelaide News in May 1952 he admitted that “It’s true. The distances, light, and colour of the Centre are a challenge to any artist. The rules of European painting don’t seem to apply out there,” and expressed admiration for aboriginal depiction of it as the best art in the world. He synthesised these impressions into raw-hued, otherworldly aerial views of red landscapes receding into a dust-laden sky. A sense of apparently infinite, uncanny desolation is achieved by Nolan’s application of a surrealism that had emerged during his wartime service in the Wimmera in 1943. It consolidates in the Ned Kelly paintings exhibited by the Reeds in Paris and praised by director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Jean Cassou as “the work of a true poet and a true painter.”
In 1950 Sidney Nolan held a successful exhibition of the landscapes, with some purchased by the Tate, in what was to be the first of many successful London solo exhibitions. In 1951 The Times art critic wrote, “Nolan has the same interest as Russell Drysdale in the hot and howling wilderness produced by erosion, Nature’s gift to the artist with surrealist tendencies.” He returned briefly to Australia and in February that year, grass fires and bushfires over 6 million hectares resulted from, and intensified, a severe drought in Queensland. There were devastating losses in the cropping, farming and dairy industries, with crop and dairy production the lowest since 1926.
The dry conditions continued until April 1952 and a further period of dry weather followed in 1953. By early 1954, the drought stretched from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Darling Downs and west to the South Australian border. While it is reported that “Four million cattle hit by drought,” the lasting collateral cost of this agriculturally-imposed disaster, on top of the climate anomaly, on the ancient natural environment and its indigenous and human inhabitants was not mentioned in that era of unchecked resource exploitation.
Nolan was commissioned to take photographs of the severe drought across the continent’s north and centre for the Brisbane Courier-Mail, which was encouraged to do so by the success of The Sydney Morning Herald‘s illustrations by Drysdale of its series of articles on the 1944 drought .
Nolan approaches the photography much as a photojournalist would, with some establishing shots and details, and some human interest. Judging by the processing marks on those negatives held in the National Library collection they may have been hurriedly developed in the darkrooms of the Mail. Even while they seize on the clichés of drought photography that would then have been absorbed from the American of the Farm Securities Administration photographic project via LIFE magazine, a surrealist note is evident. A shot of scattered defunct farm machinery defies pictorial depth, split by the horizon on which the lone hill, in tone the same as the foreground, appears at an indefinite distance because the dry air imparts no aerial perspective.
The photograph of the camp bed he shared with Cynthia that he took perhaps soon after their rising, looks as it might had it been been captured by the mast camera of a Mars lander, so empty of all but patches of dead grass is the gibber plain
His twin-lens medium-format camera permits a ground-level view of skeletal cattle, their skins tanned stiff before they can rot off the bones by an unmerciful sun in a sky which yields not a drop even when obscured by clouds; they bear only dust. Water however was plentifully available along the stock route from windmill-pumped bores; instead it was starvation for lack of feed that killed the hundreds of thousands of stock.
The outhouse and clothes lines indicate the proximity of a homestead, but the girl and her donkey stand in an unfenced yard in which there is no longer any trace of a garden, nor any blade of grass for her pet on the stones and sand on which their entwined shadows are printed. It’s a scene that one would think surely any picture editor would run.
That was not to be. The Mail, and subsequently the Melbourne Argus, on reviewing the pictures decided they were too confronting. Instead they published spreads illustrated by Nolan’s spare line drawings adapted from his photographs.
The editors’ decision was justifiable; these are heartrending images but too graphic as a documentary record for a ‘family newspaper’. The drawings translate them, still largely true to the photographs, into a more generalised representation of trauma and extremes. The copy by an uncredited writer reads;
“Nolan draws more than what the camera sees. His bold and sweeping lines seek the inner story of his subject. They capture the stark tragedy —and the dramatic quality—of the The Drought Beyond Words.”
My own experience of two stopovers at Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre), once during its flood from local rains in 1989 in contrast to a visit two years later in drought, was to witness corpses of thousands of rabbits which had proliferated in plague proportions in the good season but had starved in the dry. Their already emaciated carcasses became so desiccated in the heat that they flattened, legs outstretched, and became almost two-dimensional. So stiff were they that one could stand them in rows the sand so they looked like like the cut-out tin targets of a sideshow shooting range; it was a pathetic, macabre trick, a comic response mechanism to cope with the sheer thousands of the dead littering dunes and gibber plains.
Therefore, while Nolan’s repositioning and posing of these carcasses is so grotesque that he banished the negatives to cigarette tins to be unearthed only posthumously— it might be be comprehended as a self-defensive reaction; operating these morbid puppets taps into his comprehension of the inherent surrealism in the evaporation of life from these still intact simulacra of animal vitality.
That whole cows can be suspended in trees is a demonstration of their loss of substance; only the remaining dry bones and brittle hide lend them any weight. On the one hand they repeat Nolan’s surrealist device of the ‘topsy-turvy’ or unnaturally tilting figure that first appears in the case of a disoriented, wide-eyed boy in a Wimmera landscape, then in the figures of the fatally wounded policemen and his horse in Death of Constable Scanlon from the 1946 Ned Kelly series.
The rigid corpses preserve the animals’ last gestures in dying; as if the sun and its shrivelling arid heat were some grotesque form of photography.
As if maddened by the sheer scale of this animal holocaust, Nolan’s staging of his dead subjects rivals that of Damian Hurst. Finding the remains of a horse he has the aboriginal stockman Brian saddle and bridle it so that he can pretend to mount the half-skeletal creature. Prints of this negative must have remained in his possession, because in 1979, in his 62nd year, Nolan returns to the image.
In the painting, the landscape is once again green and the horse, its head still skeletal, is revived and with a burst of vital animation lifts the stockman from his feet. The idea that the flattened carcass can be revived by art prompts an even more macabre enactment; Nolan has Cynthia actually ride the animal, supported by cooperative, but possibly non-plussed, local station owners.
Nolan figuratively reverses the physics of light through lens and mirror into image on ground glass; he projects a reinvigorating vision onto his dead subjects. Beyond recording the photographic facts of this drought event, Nolan poses its history as lore so that it becomes “The Drought Beyond Words.”
As Nancy Underhill notes, his escape from the stultifying and formulaic copying of casts at the National Gallery School was to read Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Rilke and Verlaine, assimilating their notion that myth amplified the emotional truth of history to adopt his lifelong role of outsider artist as seer, to paint “to freshen the history” of such stories as those of Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills, Gallipoli, The Outback, of Eliza Fraser.