Menzies Art Brands



Throughout his career Sidney Nolan chose to represent certain narratives and figures that are iconic within Australias colonial history. While fascinated by the avant-garde cultural milieu of Paris, which he would discuss with his friends John and Sunday Reed and explore through their extensive library at Heide in Melbourne, Nolan built his fame through expressing the particular landscape of his home country, and the mythologies that were set within it.

Nolans first real creative engagement with the Australian landscape came when he was stationed in Victorias Wimmera region during the war years. Enjoying the solitude, he moved away from his fixation with modern art and Paris, and instead focused his attention on the terrain that surrounded him.1 He wrote, I find the desire to paint the landscape involves a wish to hear more of the stories that take place in the landscape which persist in the memory.2 Some of Nolans most widely recognised paintings give visual form to such stories, namely his iconic Kelly series where infamous bush ranger Ned Kelly is reduced to a simplified back shape that traverses brightly painted bush-land settings.

Nolan was drawn to the idea of doomed courage bound up in such Australian narratives. Like his Ned Kelly works, the spirit of heroic failure3, as T.G Rosenthal calls it, was a theme that Nolan also pursued with vigour in his paintings on the subject of Burke and Wills. The tale of these ill-fated explorers and their mission to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and cross the nation South to North, is one enshrined in our history the subject of countless primary school lessons on Australias colonial past. Like Ned Kelly it has become almost mythologised, representing how vast and merciless the Australian wilderness can be, and both the naivety and bold pioneering spirit of those from gentler cultivated shores who thought they could conquer it. Thus Ned Kelly and Burke & Wills occupy a special place in the national psyche, as figures lauded for their spirit of defiance against the odds, even though they met with a terrible end.

Camel and Man is derived from the tale of Burke and Wills, and relates strongly to two other paintings of this subject that were also created in or around 1966. Nolan exhibited his first body of Burke and Wills paintings in 1948, yet he was to return to this narrative repeatedly throughout his career. In it the artist found it a repository of universal themes surrounding the human condition. It also provided a vehicle to connect with and explore the Australian landscape itself both its physical qualities and metaphysical resonance. Indeed rather than using the name of Burke and Wills in the titles, in some works Nolan intentionally used the term figure or man to highlight the universal human emotions conveyed, rather than the incidental details
of history.4

The recurrence of this theme over different decades within Nolans oeuvre provides a fascinating way to chart dramatic developments in his visual language. For example his Burke and Wills series of the late 1940s presents an entirely different vision to his 1966 iterations of the theme. In his earlier paintings the explorers are often positioned seated on their camels, kitted out in expedition gear while staring at the viewer almost formally in the manner of a Victorian portrait.5 In many of these works the protagonists appear still in control of their situation as disaster has not yet struck though their haunted gaze foretells of impending doom.

These works were largely painted with Ripolin, a household enamel paint Nolan painted with exclusively for a period during the 1940s. By 1966 he had moved onto oils and the present work is executed with oil on board. As opposed to the thin and slow drying Ripolin, the voluminous quality of oil paint applied to a hard board substrate allowed Nolan to build up areas of thicker impasto, creating textural scumbles on the surface that describe the undulating terrain. This technique is one of the many similarities found between the present work and two other paintings of this subject created during the same period; Camel and Figure of 1966 in the Tate collection, London, and Burke and Camel c1966.

In all three works Nolan seems to be conjuring a similar moment in this tragic tale. A now lone explorer has reached a point of mental and bodily degeneration, close to death in extreme conditions. Each painting features a single figure, naked astride or standing next to a camel in the foreground. As noted by Jane Clark the pale bodies of the camel and man in the Tates painting seem to have been formed more through the removal, rather than application of paint on the surface, and appear as mere smudges scraped out of the landscape.6 Their febrile pink bodies exposed and vulnerable within the inhospitable surrounds. A similar treatment of man and beast exist in the present work, though here seem almost dissolved into the relentless red terrain. They call to mind the final two verses of a poem Nolan wrote on Burke and Wills, titled Coopers Creek:

As heat discards
through a heart
so the heart discards
and skin discards
in this extraordinary
As men vanish
through their eyes
so the bones vanish
in this extraordinary

Camel and Man is a visceral work. Nolan has created an almost flesh-like rendition of Australias arid interior, with its palette of deep ochres and violent reds that are interrupted by lighter streaks that recall the musculature and sinews of the body. Much like Arthur Boyds paintings of the late 1960s that chart the descent into madness of Nebuchadnezzar, the biblical King of Ancient Babylon, the Australian bush forms a backdrop of physical and psychological deterioration. The nudity of Nolans figure, his awkward splayed leg stance, and the inferno like atmosphere of the work are prescient indicators of the protagonists altered state of mind in Camel and Man.

Yet while creating a virtuosic lament to human frailty and the sad fate of these intrepid men, this painting also expresses an awed reverence for the Australian landscape itself, in all of its ferocious intensity. The same power and immensity is expressed in a major multi-panel work painted in the same year, Desert Storm 1966 held in the Art Gallery of Western Australia. This vast painting stretches over eight panels, each 152.3 x 122 cm in size and provides a sweeping panorama of desert as a red sandstorm descends.

While sharing marked similarities in palette, handling of paint, and the arid desert subject with Camel and Man, both works contain a romantic conception of the beauty and terror found in the natural world. Such paintings provide a striking conceptual and aesthetic contrast to the hard edge abstraction that dominated the age.8 Instead Nolan chose to focus on capturing the experience of Australias wild spaces through figurative and expressive means.

In Camel and Man Nolan makes another highly original contribution to traditions of representing the Australian landscape. Layering fear and awe, fact and myth, the artist creates a space where human fate and the landscape are bound eternally together.

1. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, NSW, 1987, p.42
2. Nolan, S., The Australian Artist, Vol 1, July 1948, quoted in The Kelly paintings by Sidney Nolan, p.20
3. Rosenthal, T.G., Sidney Nolan, Thames & Hudson, London, 2002, p.120
4. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, NSW, 1987, p.135
5. Rosenthal, T.G., Sidney Nolan, Thames & Hudson, London, 2002, pp. 120-121
6. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, NSW, 1987, p.159
7. Nolan, S., Poems, The Latrobe Journal, No. 64, Spring 1999, p.12
8. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, NSW, 1987, p.150

Marguerite Brown MA ArtCur

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