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Sidney Nolan: Greek Myths, Modern Times

Santorini, 1956. © Sidney Nolan Trust

Sir Sidney Nolan was one of Australia’s most significant modernist artists, best known for his depictions of the history and mythology of bush life in Australia. His paintings, often rich in colour, striking in composition and deliberately awkward in technique, represent Australian stories of loss, failure and capture, featuring figures such as the bushranging Kelly Gang, shipwreck victim Eliza Fraser and the explorers Burke and Wills. In fact, Nolan’s iconic paintings of the Kelly Gang contributed to the development of the image of Ned Kelly as a mythologised symbol for Australian history and identity.

In 1951, he left Victoria for London and then in November 1955, hungry for further inspiration, Nolan and his wife, writer Cynthia Reed, travelled from London to the Greek island of Hydra which boasted a creative expatriate circle.

Hydra, which lies off the coast of the Peloponnese, is one of those places that captures the imagination, and life on the island has centred around the sparkling natural harbour since Neolithic times. Between 1566 and 1821, Hydra was part of the Ottoman Empire during which time it became an important commercial port before becoming a naval power during the Greek Revolution. Soon after, it slowly lost its maritime strength and prominence, leading many inhabitants to leave the island and their homes.

Hydra, however, became increasingly popular with the artistic set and another revival occurred following the Second World War, this time led by a number of Greek and foreign artists who either moved to, or began to spend a lot of time on, the island.

Nolan's visit was intended to be a brief one, but days turned to weeks and they did not leave Greece for another six months. During his stay on Hydra, Nolan’s interest in Greek history deepened and he became fascinated by Classical sculpture, literature and the representation of ancient Greek warriors on vases. His interest in mythologies, doomed heroes and anti-heroes, already evident in his Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills paintings, took on another layer of meaning.

In 1956, Nolan met Australian writer Alan Moorehead who was finishing his major study of the Gallipoli campaign. Nolan, who had been thinking of the Trojan war as his next project, was inspired by Moorehead and realised the parallels between the Gallipoli campaign and Greek siege of Troy.

One of the forgotten elements of the Gallipoli campaign is the fact that Greek-speaking peoples had occupied the peninsula since early ancient times. The name ‘Gallipoli’ comes from the Greek ‘Kallipolis’, which means ‘Beautiful City’. The city referred to in the name is the modern Turkish Gelibolu, a bit further north from where the fighting took place in 1915.

Gallipoli, 1958. © Sidney Nolan Trust

Nolan’s direct engagement with Greek culture, and his interest in the Anzac's and the Anzac myth, allowed him to give full rein to his passion for myth within a landscape. Having read the Iliad and the musings of Robert Graves in The Greek Myths, both of which seem to have inspired him, Nolan could stand at Gallipoli and let his imagination take hold.

The sea, too, played a significant role in the imagery of Nolan's works, and the Dardanelles, which has been both a giver and taker of life since antiquity, echoed Homer's "wine-dark sea and were darkened in turn by the blood of 130,000 soldiers from both sides in during WW1. Many of Nolan's ideas about war and death are revealed in the Gallipoli diptych, a major work whose water imagery alludes to the risk of drowning.

Nolan's depictions of Australian soldiers recall the image of ancient heroes, as modern soldiers caught up in a bloody, violent and essentially never-ending war; lurid colours accentuate the trauma of battle, figures are distorted, disengaged, distant. As Nolan himself noted, as he stood and looked across at ancient Troy: "I visualised the young, fresh faces of boys from the bush, knowing nothing of war or of faraway places, all individuals, and suddenly all the same – united and uniform in the dignity of a common destiny".

Bather, Soldier, Gallipoli, 1958. © Sidney Nolan Trust

Text drawn from essays by Professor Chris Mackie (La Trobe University) and Mark Fraser (Agent for the Estate of Lady Nolan) in 'Sidney Nolan: The Greek Series' exhibition catalogue.

About Anthony Fitzpatrick

Anthony Fitzpatrick is the Curator at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, Victoria. An alum of The University of Melbourne, where he completed his Postgraduate Certificate in Conservation Studies and a Master of Art Curatorship in 2002 and 2005 respectively, he joined TarraWarra in 2011 and has since curated a number of exhibitions, includingThought Patterns (2019); Fred Williams – 1974 (2017); Howard Arkley (and friends …) (2015–16) with Victoria Lynn; and Vibrant Matter (2013). Anthony has also curated solo exhibitions of contemporary aAustralian artists and has authored a number of articles and catalogue essays.

His most recent exhibition Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider at TarraWarra brings together over 100 works by Sidney Nolan between the years 1955-1965, a period in which the artist poured over the Trojan War and its parallels with the Gallipoli campaign, alongside its origins in the myth of Leda and the Swan. The works chosen reveal, through Nolan's careful melding of classical allusions, historical reference, literary sources and his own personal stance on war, acute insights into not only human conflict but the grander mythologies surrounding it.

Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider closes on 6 March 2022.

TarraWarra Curator Anthony Fitzpatrick standing inside the exhibition. Behind him is 'Troy - Dragging of Hector', 1966. © Scott McNaughton


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