Sidney Nolan: The Gallipoli Series

October 17, 2009
Sidney Nolan, Head of soldier, 1942, enamel on cardboard, 75.8 x 63.3cm
Sidney Nolan, Head of soldier, 1942, enamel on cardboard, 75.8 x 63.3cm

When Alan Seymour wrote his famous play, The One Day of the Year, in 1960, the Anzac legend was at a low ebb. The war in Vietnam was beginning to ignite, and Australia would soon be sending troops. The burgeoning youth culture of the era was repulsed by the spectacle of Anzac Day, with its processions of aging diggers, its bluster and booze-ups. It seemed to represent everything worth rejecting: nostalgia, militarism, political conservatism, male chauvinism. It was a celebration of narrowness and hypocrisy; a reminder of the psychic scars war had left on parents and grandparents.

No-one at that time could have predicted the extraordinary reversal of public attitudes that has taken place over the past two decades. Nowadays, Anzac Day is commemorated with a passion and fervour that has continued to grow – especially among young people – even as those with first-hand experience of World War One have passed away.

Every year a large contingent of Australians make their way to Turkey to experience Anzac Day at the site of that tragic disembarkation. The Gallipoli Art Prize, with which I’m associated, is now in its fourth year, and continues to attract increasing numbers of entries. There is a never-ending stream of books and films devoted to the campaign, in both English and Turkish.

Amid this escalation of public sentiment the only dissenting voice has come from the former PM, Paul Keating, who last year attacked the idea that Australia was “born again” or “baptised” in blood and fire, on the shores of Gallipoli. This caused an outcry at the time, but if one actually reads Keating’s speech the attack is not on the Anzacs but on the empty rhetoric that too often obscures a clear sense of the event.

Australian history is riddled with myths, and the Anzac landing on 25 April 1915 is our most heavily mythologised event of all time. Myths are convenient stories that we prefer to humdrum reality, but in an age dominated by sound bites and spin doctors the deep meanings of such stories give way to shallow, jingoistic formulations. For instance, Liz Porter wrote an article in the Age this year denouncing the way “the Anzac spirit” has been appropriated as an AFL marketing slogan. Neither should we forget the disco music played at Anzac Cove a few years ago that threatened to turn the commemoration into an all-night rave party.

The worst of all recent manifestations of the way historical memory is being eroded by popular culture has thankfully nothing to do with Australia. That distinction must go to Quentin Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds, which restages the Second World War as a gory slap-stick routine.

Myths need to be constantly interrogated by less exploitative writers and artists who chart changes of meaning and ask where they are taking us. The Australian War Memorial has provided an opportunity for this necessary soul-searching, by hosting a survey of Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli series, which may be seen in Canberra for another month, ahead of a tour of regional venues.

Of all Australian artists, Sidney Nolan (1917-92) is our most dedicated student of national myths. He made his reputation with his first Ned Kelly series of 1946-47 and went on to examine other legendary figures such as Eliza Fraser and Burke and Wills. The Gallipoli series was one of Nolan’s greatest challenges, and one of his most protracted. He made his first small Gallipoli picture in April 1955 and was still adding to the series in 1978, when he gifted 252 works to the AWM. This was also the last time a large number of these works were shown together in a touring exhibition.

 

On a previous occasion in 1966, 147 works from the series were shown at the Qantas Gallery in Sydney. As was often the case with Nolan, the critics were polarised in their opinions, with Wallace Thornton finding the pictures too “slippery”, while James Gleeson felt they “embodied Nolan’s claim to immortality above anything else he had done.”

The jury is still out, and this new exhibition is bound to cause further argument. The first salvos were fired two years ago, by Barry Pearce, curator of the Nolan retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW. While recognising the emotional importance of the series to the artist, Pearce concluded that it “did not contain anything that could be truly described as major.” The one possible exception was the big Gallipoli diptych of 1963, which forms the centerpiece of the AWM show. Yet this was seen as “an ineloquent, disconnected conception that falls well short of lifting tragedy into heroic grandeur.”

As Bernard Berenson noted, in his little book on Piero della Francesca, ineloquence in art may be a supreme virtue, expressing character and essence rather than some momentary urgent communication. This is not, however, the way Pearce interpreted the term. The Gallipoli pictures were dismissed as minor works and omitted from the retrospective.

The justification for this high-handed gesture lies in Nolan’s productivity, and his notorious inconsistency. If we accept the artist’s own estimate that he painted 35,000 pictures, this necessarily includes an alarming percentage of second and third rate works. Pearce would argue that such an output required a rigorous editing job if Nolan were to be seen in the best possible light.

One may applaud the bravery of this stance, but I thought at the time it was wrong to omit every trace of a series that meant so much to Nolan, and dealt with a defining moment in Australian history. The AWM show makes this omission seem even more problematic, for the Gallipoli pictures may be uneven in quality but they possess a cumulative power and a surprising grandeur of conception. Taken one by one these works are moving in their frail, fragmented forms, each an invalid rescued from the battlefield of Nolan’s imagination.

Even some of the crudest sketches are startling in their originality, such as a ragged Head of a Soldier (cat. no.72), in which Nolan has dragged an almost-dry brush back and forth across a piece of paper, until the face appears to be made from murky-green algae. In other rapid figure sketches (cat. nos. 37-46) the forms of soldiers caught in shell bursts are like ghosts pinioned at the centre of an explosion. The background landscape, reduced to a bare minimum, is nothing more than a band of dirty blue-brown against the white of the paper.

 

Nolan had originally intended to paint a series based on the Trojan War, as described by Homer in the Iliad. It was the novelist, George Johnston, who gave him the idea of looking instead at the Anzacs, as a modern reworking of the classical story. The Nolans would spend a few months staying with the Johnstons, on the Greek island of Hydra, in 1956. On the nearby island of Spetsae, another Australian, Alan Moorehead, was at work on his book about the Gallipoli campaign, in which the Homeric theme would be explored.

Nolan visited Moorehead and engaged in stimulating discussions about the ancient Greeks and the Anzacs. At the same time he paid a brief visit to the battlefield, which had a tremendous impact upon him. The impressions Nolan stored up in his retentive memory would sustain him through many different attempts to come to terms with the story. He painted Gallipoli pictures in Greece, in London and New York, adding ideas and images that had seeped into his mind during his travels. We may assume, for instance, that the Gallipoli landscapes contain traces of the Australian and American deserts

Nolan’s figure compositions are influenced by the artifacts, paintings and documentary photographs he came across in his reading. The most prominent example is the Gallipoli diptych, which reputedly owes its origins to a drawing of Michelangelo’s unfinished masterpiece The Battle of Cascina. Nolan has transformed this scene into a mass of grappling figures in a watery underworld illuminated by a dim, flickering light. He has also personalised it, adding the figure of his brother Ray, who was accidentally drowned in Cook Town at the end of the war, while awaiting demobilisation. When Nolan donated the series to the AWM the gift was dedicated to the memory of his brother, and all Australians killed in war.

One of the strengths of this series is the quick and spontaneous way Nolan jots down his impressions of the campaign. This method is contrary to the monumental tendencies of so much war art. It also goes against the way artists have habitually depicted myths – as the deeds of heroic, larger-than-life beings. Nolan’s soldiers, regardless of their classical sources, are anonymous figurines buffeted by the forces of destiny. He does not portray Gallipoli as a historic coming-of-age, but as a brutal shadow play, acted out by ordinary men. There is nothing glorious in Nolan’s account of war, but like the Greeks before him, he has an instinctive, poetic grasp of the meaning of tragedy.

 

Sidney Nolan: The Gallipoli Series,The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, August 7-November 18, 2009

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 17, 2009