Menzies Art Brands

SIDNEY NOLAN Sandstorm (Burke and Wills) 1985


Sidney Nolans Sandstorm, 1985, is an impressively scaled and highly individualistic painting that comprises three oil on canvas panels. Conceived as a thematic installation work, the triptych was exhibited together with four other multi-panel works at the S. H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney in 1986. Each of the panels was intended to be viewed either as part of the overall installation, as part of its triptych, or as individual works. As Menzies own Tim Abdallah has noted: The flexibility of the concept was appropriate because it allowed Nolan to examine the [Burke and Wills] subject from various viewpoints including the historical facts of the expedition, the landscape that was its backdrop, as well as that in the 120 years since the original events, the desert had been sufficiently tamed to allow a film crew and acting troupe to comfortably record the tragic history of the expedition on film.

The story of Burke and Wills and their ill-fated attempt to traverse the Australian continent from south to north is writ large in the annals of Australian history. It has often been commented that this tragically bungled nineteenth century journey impregnated the Australian psyche to celebrate near success and commemorate failure.

Certainly Sidney Nolan was interested in the idea of explorers as both heroic and foolhardy and the way that colonial myths embedded and transformed our collective, cultural memory. Above all else, the Burke and Wills story confirmed in Nolans mind the idea that dogged determination allied to the explorers ultimate downfall had important lessons for successive generations.

Nolans first painting on Burke and Wills was in 1945. Forty years later, following the release of a new Australian film, Nolan produced a series that included Sandstorm (Burke and Wills), 1985. These new paintings offered a very different perspective on the Burke and Wills epic to that which he had painted in 1948-50 and 1961-65.1 It was as if the filming of Burke & Wills and the experience of being on location provided a new and vital ingredient through which Nolan drew together elements of fact, fiction and film. These are self-consciously contemporary works: they reference his own work and development as a painter as well as offer an intriguing response to particular elements of the story swaged through contemporary experiences and events.

Until this time Nolan had never actually visited the key spots or inland route taken by Burke and Wills. For the 1948-50 paintings, he had drawn upon his first trip to the Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australian outback. He later wrote about these works in a letter to the poet and writer Geoffrey Dutton: There seem to be three elements in the paintings: the actuality of the landscape, which for Australians is intensified to the point of a dream; the strange conjunction of a man on a camel, from which he surveys the landscape as if he is walking on giant stilts; and always the birds, which make everything so vivid ... I doubt that I will ever forget my emotions when first flying over Central Australia, and realizing how much we painters and poets owe to our predecessors the explorers, with their frail bodies and superb will-power.2 The precise locality of the resulting paintings was less important to him in this initial series than the experience he had encountered in outback Australia and the recording of key events or incidents associated with the Burke and Wills journey.

Nolan returned to Burke and Wills more than a decade later. This was after prompting his friend Alan Moorehead to write a novel about their expedition. The resulting book, Coopers Creek, was published in 1963 and included a Nolan work on the cover and reproductions of two plates from his current crop of paintings inside. Nolan drew upon conversations with Moorehead and returned to his own previous work for inspiration. In the process, he shifted the emphasis in the second series even more towards the vulnerability of the two men: as he now saw it as a perfect metaphor for the tenuous relationship of Europeans with a seemingly hostile land. The explorers are invariably depicted naked astride a camel, united centaur-like for [their] survival.3

For his third and final series of Burke and Wills paintings, Nolan jumped at the chance to join the 1984 production of a new Hoyts Edgley film starring Jack Thompson as Burke and English actor Nigel Havers as Wills. Reputedly, Burke & Wills was the most expensive Australian film to date, partly because of its impressive cast but also because much of it was shot on location along the actual route of the expedition. Somewhat amusingly, it was also released around the same time as a low budget Australian comedy starring Garry McDonald (aka Norman Gunston), in which Burke and Willss desert scenes were shot in an old quarry near the Victorian town of Werribee!
Sidney Nolan became the official artist for the Hoyts Edgley film and was invited to travel with the production company to locations including the famous Coopers Creek camp. He subsequently produced five large triptychs, amongst them Sandstorm (Burke and Wills), 1985. The freely associative qualities of the triptychs are a feature of these works. The left panel of Sandstorm (Burke and Wills) depicts a turbulent sky and its slow and heavy build. It was not uncommon for Nolan to paint using his hands and in this work there is ample evidence of fingermarks and textured trails of paint that equate with the deft execution required to capture the nuances of the desert sky.
The artist juxtaposes this with a more familiar and classic Nolan scene in the central panel whereby Burke (in the foreground) and Wills (to the rear) confront the billowing sand and dust. Finally in the right-hand panel, there is the image of a woman surveying the Burke and Wills party. Seen far in the distance are the actors as they track through a now benevolent land. It is as if the original exploits of Burke and Wills have been replaced by the film version and the landscape is not just a backdrop but more like a filmic mise-en-scne.

Nolan refers back to a number of his own works in the 1985 Burke and Wills paintings as well as including references to other classic paintings such as Edouard Manets famous Le djeuner sur Iherbe (Luncheon on the Grass), 1862. However it is the cinematic qualities and specific references to the people involved in the making of the film that particularly stand out. The first panel could reference innumerable films about the end of the world; the centre appears episodic like a single frame frozen in time; while in the third panel, a movie technician wearing a production company t-shirt becomes part of the story. There is no continuous narrative to speak of; rather, the painter basks in disjunctions created by seemingly incongruous shifts in time and space. It is the making of the film rather than the myth that is now the focus of his gaze.

There are a number of possible explanations for Nolans distinctive and idiosyncratic approach, including his desire to demythologise what had become a commonplace mindset or understanding of the original expedition. Nolan commented at the time that nothing much had changed since Burke and Wills had first pitted themselves against the outback and that he and we were simply committing their same old mistakes. What continued to captivate Nolan about Burke and Wills was their resilience in the face of great adversity; however, if nothing else, their experience also highlighted a fragile contemporary grip on reality. These paintings capture Nolans idea that lifes journey continues to be fraught with a mixture of peril and adventure.

1. Bonyhady, T., Burke and Wills: From Melbourne to Myth, David Ell Press, Sydney, 1991, p.298
2. Nolan, correspondence with Geoffrey Dutton, quoted in Rosenthal, T. G., Sidney Nolan, Thames & Hudson, London, 2002, p.122
3. Bonyhady, T., Burke and Wills: From Melbourne to Myth, p.305

Rodney James
BA (Hons), MA

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