Menzies Art Brands



During and after the 1940s war years Sidney Nolan engaged both memory and myth, producing innovative modernist works from his St Kilda childhood and beginning his first tentative mediations on the Ned Kelly theme. The St Kilda works had a rebellious and escapist feel. They had been formulated in the early 1940s during his army service in the Wimmera in Western Victoria. Clearly, bathers and the seaside sideshows were a counterfoil to the psychologically haunting images that emerged from the army days at Wimmera: soldiers, barracks, tracks and rail yards. His paintings of bathers from this period were far from naturalistic. They were shaped with such modernist angularity that they looked as if they had been cut out with scissors and then appliqud onto the painting, adding to the overall flattened perspective.

Nolan left the army in 1944 and moved to Heide into the circle of John and Sunday Reid. Heide has been described as a haven where patrons-with-a-difference John and Sunday Reed kept open house of table and mind.1 This new environment helped him come to terms with his desertion of the military and helped him re-build relationships after his failed marriage. For Nolan, it was a time for rediscovery to recapture things, to see things again, to re-experience them.2

Many of the St Kilda works of the war years had a small, squarish format that avoided the elongated shape of both landscape and portrait, and allowed him to concentrate on a direct and child-like paint application. At Heide, Nolan continued to work on small-format boards close to the 63.0 x 76.5 cm format of the current Bather of 1945. He was attracted to the immediacy of enamel (Ripolin) paint because it left a flattened, chalky surface as if the paint had dried into the backing board rather than having its moisture slowly taken up by the air. His customary use of Ripolin aided his desire for immediacy, and an unreflective spontaneity.3 It meant that he had to work quickly, taking formatting decisions with each brushstroke and being master of his instinctive ability to sketch formthere was no time or space for revisions that had the look of hesitancy or, worse still, uncertainty.  

This master-technique is clearly evident in Bather 1945. He has utilised his favoured enamels of golden yellow, blue and red and subtly tinted them, creating a golden summers landscape of his surroundings at Heide in physicality rather than in any tradition of the Impressionists. There is more of a sense of perspective than was offered in the St Kilda works. However it is only hinted at, as the whole area from foreground to horizon is flat-matted yellow; the only perspective is offered through the cascading diminution of the trees towards the horizon. His Bather owes as much to Picassos women as it does to the expressionistsor the idyllic sexualised dream-world of the Surrealists. She reclines somewhat gracefully in the prepared ground, with far greater sexual tension, and liberation, than was evident in many of the cut-out angular figures of the St Kilda Bathers. She reclines in a curious harmony that seems to recall art-historical precedents rather than strengthen Nolans modernist voice of originality. No longer in exile, Nolan was, in the words of John Reeda painter who paints what he sees about him, revealing to us with remarkable integration and clarity the essential heart of his experience. 4


1.  Clark, J., Sidney NolanLandscapes & Legends, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p58

2.  Lynn, E., Sidney NolanAustralia, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p.48

3.  Lynn, E., Sidney NolanMyth & Imagery, Macmillan, London, 1967, p.17

4.  Clark, J., op cit, p59

Professor Peter James Smith BSc (Hons); MSc; M Stats; MFA; PhD




We use our own and third party cookies to enhance your experience of our site, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing. By continuing to use our site you consent to the use of cookies. Please refer to our privacy and cookie policy.