A A previously unknown and dark chapter in the life and work of Sidney Nolan is in the spotlight, with the unveiling of the first paintings documenting the horrors of Nazi Germany – which the Australian artist never wanted see in his lifetime.
The obscenity of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps haunted the artist for more than two decades, plunging him into a personal crisis that led him to seriously question the role that art should play, the if necessary, in the face of a total absence of humanity.
After being buried in the vast collection of the Sidney Nolan Trust outside Presteigne on the England-Wales border for more than half a century, 50 of these works are now on public display. in Australia for the first time, in the exhibition of the Jewish Museum of Sydney. Shaken To His Core: Nolan’s Untold Auschwitz Story.
Sydney researcher Andrew Turley first learned of the works in 2012, while gathering material for his forthcoming book on Nolan’s African series, created in the early 1960s when the artist visited Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania.
Turley questioned the theory that Nolan had become increasingly preoccupied with the decline of Western civilization; he was to eventually learn that the seeds of this preoccupation had been sown in the artist much earlier, when he was barely out of his teens – and a few years before he embarked on his famous Ned Kelly series.
In the Nolan archives, Turley came across a newspaper clipping from the weekend magazine Argus from January 6, 1938 about the inmates of Buchenwald: one of the first and largest concentration camps to be opened within the borders of Germany, which would imprison the political enemies of the Third Reich, the mentally infirm, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and, ultimately, tens of thousands of Jews.
Nolan had overlaid the photograph of Buchenwald inmates with his first Holocaust image, titled Prison Camp; on the back of the image were the words: ”Camp… Tears (St Kilda Beach)”.
He was 21 years old.
“So you have a boy in Melbourne, who lives at the end of the world,” says Turley. “And he writes this, usually before anyone in Europe cares about it, let alone in the art world. It’s before Francis Bacon, one of his main contemporaries, it’s before Picasso. Bacon’s Three Figures for the Base of a Crucifixion and Picasso’s The Charnel House were created around 1944.
In a second newspaper clipping, Nolan writes, “Divine Comedy, pit concentration camp,” referring to Dante’s 8th and 9th circles of hell, representing fraud against humanity and betrayal, respectively.
In 1944, Nolan painted Lublin, which depicted the Polish city’s Jewish ghetto in the same year the Russian army liberated it from German occupation. This work was acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1974 – but over the next two decades the Holocaust would continue to haunt Nolan, his depictions becoming more literal: brick ovens with incarcerated bodies, bars, scratches , the smoke from the chimneys.
Apart from a small Sidney Nolan Trust exhibition at the artist’s home in the UK last year, these works have not been shown to the public and will surprise those who know Nolan for his Australian iconography – his paintings of Ned Kelly and the Anzacs.
But while the connection between the artist’s Troy and Gallipoli series in the 1950s has been commonly recognized, Turley says Nolan’s little-known third trope – the Holocaust – was actually “the vertical weave” in the yarn. of the artist’s large tapestry.
“Linking Anzacs to Auschwitz”: a pivotal year
In 1961, Nolan wrote in his diary: “Link Anzacs to Auschwitz”.
It was the same year that Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s chief architect of the “final solution to the Jewish question”, was captured in Argentina and tried in Israel. The nine-month trial received intense international media coverage and, unlike the Nuremberg trials, relied heavily on graphic first-person testimony from dozens of concentration camp survivors.
The cover brought Nolan’s concern and terror to the fore.
The artist made dozens of drawings in the final weeks of the trial, capturing the sinister thin-lipped mouth, receding hairline and distinctive rounded glasses of the war criminal seated behind bulletproof glass.
On December 15, 1961, Eichmann was sentenced to death.
“It gave Nolan the release he needed… There was an outpouring of work over a few weeks, it was like a valve with the lid off and the steam rushing in,” says Turley.
From mid-December to early January 1962, he painted 120 paintings.
“The smoke begins to appear [in Nolan’s paintings]the paint is scratched, screams appear on the mouths,” he says.
“By December 29, the heads had become skeletal, had become almost like a skull and crossbones.”
For nine days, from late December to early January, Nolan seemed to rest. Next, a “two-day torrent,” says Turley.
“Consistent tortured images, 90 skeletal works, chariots, smoking crosses, crucifixions of smoke pouring from the tops of crucified skeletons… he just couldn’t expel the trauma.
“It’s a rambling, tumbling bustle of work.”
In just four weeks, Nolan created 220 images.
Early that same year, Nolan’s friend and Observer poetry editor Al Alvarez suggested the artist accompany him on a trip to Auschwitz. Alvarez planned to write an essay about camp and wanted Nolan to provide the footage.
The Iron Curtain was at its height, the Berlin Wall had carved a strip through the heart of the German capital a few months earlier, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was brewing. Nolan’s belief that Western civilization was collapsing under a festering moral canker became more ingrained in his consciousness.
“He completely immersed himself in this human suffering,” Turley says.
“The concept that civilization was failing was huge, and Auschwitz was a representation of that failure…revealing a possible reality for the future that was horrifying.”
Faced with such abject abomination, and after taking a series of photographs at Auschwitz for Alvarez, Nolan decided never to commit to painting another picture of the Holocaust. He resigned from the Observer commission, and this outpouring of works created over a four-week period in 1961-62 was relegated to a dark, invisible corner of the artist’s oeuvre for the next half-century.
“Auschwitz was beyond angst for Nolan and it was a place where the psychopath was reality,” says Turley.
“The reality of Auschwitz, with the heaps of prostheses, hair, suitcases, glasses and iron carts in the crematoria, and the layout of the camp, like a Mondrian grid intended to shelter hens waiting to be slaughter. It was a reality that went far beyond his previous imaginings and he just couldn’t accept this inhumanity.
Nolan, who saw art as a Geiger counter of civilization, as an early warning system, therefore could not accept the art he had created about the Holocaust.
“He no longer knew how an illness could be painted, and he didn’t paint or talk about it for decades afterwards.”