At Serengeti the great herds in migration are just like the walls of Lascaux come alive … These animals have a message for us in that they are unique – the message will become fossilized as the species die out. One comes to view them as works which will not be repeated again; the fascination of going to see a zebra or a gazelle is the fascination of discovering a perfected shape.1
In the autumn of 1962, Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia spent ten days in the Serengeti National Park, in what is now northern Tanzania. Observing the animals in their natural state, Nolan was struck by their ready-made beauty: ‘they look like new works of art, shining as if they’d just been painted.’2 Back in his London studio, Nolan worked with characteristic bravura and speed. Working in thin washes of oil on hardboard, Nolan smudged in the basic elements of each composition with a nylon stocking, before rendering the finer details with a ‘heavily loaded brush.’3 His African paintings are marked by their rich colouration, ‘dyed streaky’ surfaces,4 and a compelling sense of the ephemeral.
In Elephant 1963, Nolan’s subject gazes at the viewer with an anthropomorphic directness. The elephant stands proud and alone, amid the flat grasslands of the Serengeti. The surrounding landscape is ghostly and fleeting, with a palette of dusky greens and browns reminiscent of a faded photograph. As Nolan explained, ‘I feel that there’s a kind of painting to be done with animals and natural camouflage that would be, in a sense, a no-painting; there would be a total disappearance of the image – but if you stared at it long enough the image would eventually waft up.’5
Nolan’s interest in African wildlife was not merely for visual effect. As the writer Andrew Turley recently observed, Nolan’s African paintings ‘are delivered as a form of extinction art.’6 There is a note of melancholy attached to his admiration for these animals – a prescient concern for their demise at the hands of humankind.
Elephant was first unveiled at London’s Marlborough Gallery in May 1963, with an opening attended by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. By this time, Nolan’s international reputation had been firmly established, and despite mixed reviews from the British press, it was reported that his African paintings ‘sold, of course, like hot cakes.’7
1. Sidney Nolan, quoted in Rosenthal, T., Sidney Nolan, Thames & Hudson, London, 2002, p.179
3. Clark, J., Sidney Nolan: Landscapes & Legends - A Retrospective Exhibition: 1937-1987, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, Sydney, 1987, p.144
4. Gosling, N., ‘Sidney Nolan on Safari,’ The Observer, London, 12 May 1963, p.28
5. Sidney Nolan, quoted in Rosenthal, T., Sidney Nolan, p.179
6. ‘Sidney Nolan’s Africa Interview with Andrew Turley and Revd Jonathan Evens,’ Art Lyst, 3 October 2021 (accessed October 2022): https://www.artlyst.com/features/sidney-nolans-africa-interview-andrew-turley-revd-jonathan-evens/
7. Boys, L. ‘Roving Reporter of Art: Africa in Vivid Nolancolour,’ The Bulletin, Sydney, vol.85, no.4357, 24 August 1963, p.32