Mar 7th 2011

The Impossible Project: Sidney Nolan and Australian Drought

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

The grotesque is always hard to capture, be it in terms of natural disaster or human-made catastrophe. When it comes to the Australian drought, it is nigh impossible. Human and animal figures elude proper examination. The carcasses of dead life stock seem somehow out of reach for those of the artistic bent. The result is an irresistible temptation to caricature what is already awful, to provide a stock trade description about an image so unbelievably distressing it demands another language.

The Australian Galleries in Collingwood has made an attempt to register these ensembles of grotesquery, a record of environmental disaster, through an exhibition featuring photographic works by Sidney Nolan. The exhibition Drought Photographs seems, at first glance, promising. Nolan was nothing if not prolific. But on closer inspection, one finds the strength of the environment Nolan attempts to capture overwhelming.

Nolan can be found in a few instances looking rather calm in the catastrophe. In one photograph, there is a glass of wine on a table, placed in the foreground, as the camera takes his picture. Even as one faces the end of life in sand and vicious sun, one should be entitled to a good tipple. There are instances where he is with life and the living - a child is present in one picture. With a sense of bravado, he is facing this environmental calamity with a calm that is itself grotesque. Whether he intended it as an inappropriate contrast is hard to know. But like his painting, the illusion can itself become overwhelming. The carcasses in the photos look like overdone stage props, exaggerated to the point of the absurd. (This entire environment is, in a sense, absurd - or at least the human presence in it.)

Untitled (Brian the stockman at Wavehill Station mounting a dead horse) from 1952 demonstrates the absurd in action. The prop is being mounted in a bone dry desert by the stockman. The horse is, of course, free of life - in so far as both art and reality are one. The stockman, Australia's symbol of environmental colonisation, need only to be told: 'Fool, the animal is a mere carcass.' He has been bluffed by drought. Untitled (calf carcass in tree) from the same year is barely believable, an animal jammed on the tree for artistic license. Untitled (cow skull balanced on hooves I) seems like a misplaced joke.

This is hardly surprising in Nolan. It has been noted that, when confronted with the Drought paintings of the 1950s, Nolan slid into a form of sentimentality. In fact, the reviewer Merlin James raised the point that he might have well been viewed as neo-Romantic in his treatment of the subject. When confronted by the alien, by the impossible, one is likely to become a romantic.

With his sketches placed at the back of the gallery, there is a sense of Picasso about it - sense, in so far as it alludes to Don Quixote and the rather minimal background figure of Sancho Panza in the 1955 drawing made for the August 18-24 issue of Les Lettres françaises, a magazine edited by the poet Louis Aragon. The elongated figure, in turn, might well have been inspired by a notably spare statuette of the Cervantes figure in Spain. Nolan's own drought ravaged figures feature a distorted presence, necrophilia twisted and tormented by nature. Daumier meets Picasso in the sands - the tragedy of the animal world is to be found before the remorseless sun and the torturous lack of water.

The absurdist mythology is taken to its penultimate in Russell Drysdale's portraits. Man feeding his dogs from 1941, hanging with much force and presence in the Queensland Art Gallery, is an example of emaciated figures in action, brittle and skinny arms moving towards even skinnier animals. Thin, desperate figures project out of the dry earth, trees devoid of leaves and life dominate like crosses coming out of a dead earth. In a sense, Drysdale comes somewhat closer than Nolan in capturing the desolation. The thinning out of his human figures, and the even thinner trees, suggest that this environment strips, reduces, destroys. The dogs are alone, mere savage reminders of life without water. With Nolan's portraits of the drought-ravaged environment, one is getting a dinosaur parade, figures destroyed and yet standing tall, proud as museum pieces. No drought would ever allow that to happen in any accurate way at all.


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