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‘He could not expel the trauma’: Sidney Nolan’s Auschwitz paintings revealed in landmark show

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‘He could not expel the trauma’: Sidney Nolan’s Auschwitz paintings revealed in landmark show

Apreviously unknown and dark chapter in the life and work of Sidney Nolan is in the spotlight, with the unveiling of early paintings documenting the horrors of Nazi Germany – which the Australian artist never wished to be shown in his lifetime.

The obscenity of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps haunted the artist for more than two decades, throwing him into a personal crisis that left him seriously questioning the role art should play, if any, in the face of a total absence of humanity.

After lying buried within the vast Sidney Nolan Trust collection outside Presteigne, on the border between England and Wales, for more than half a century, 50 of these works are now on public display in Australia for the first time, in the Sydney Jewish Museum’s exhibition Shaken To His Core: The Untold Story Of Nolan’s Auschwitz.

Sydney researcher Andrew Turley began learning of the existence of the works in 2012, when he was gathering material on his forthcoming book about Nolan’s African series, created in the early 1960s when the artist toured Serengeti national park in northern Tanzania.

Turley was interrogating the theory that Nolan had become increasingly preoccupied with the decline of western civilisation; he was to eventually learn that the seeds of that preoccupation had been sown in the artist much earlier, when he was barely out of his teens – and some years before he embarked on his famous Ned Kelly series.

In the Nolan archives, Turley came across an Argus weekend magazine newspaper clipping from 6 January 1938 about the inmates of Buchenwald: one of the first and largest concentration camps to be opened within Germany’s own borders, which would imprison the Third Reich’s political enemies, the mentally infirm, Romanis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and, ultimately, tens of thousands of Jews.

Nolan had overpainted the photograph of Buchenwald inmates with his first Holocaust picture, called Prison Camp; on the back of the image were inscribed the words: ‘‘Camp … Tears (St Kilda Beach)’’.

He was 21 years old.

“So you’ve got a boy in Melbourne, living at the edge of the world,” says Turley. “And he’s writing this, generally before anyone in Europe is addressing this, let alone addressing it in the art world. This is before Francis Bacon, one of his key contemporaries, this is before Picasso.” Bacon’s Three Figures for the Base of a Crucifixion and Picasso’s The Charnel House were both 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 treachery respectively.

In 1944 Nolan painted Lublin, which depicted the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city the same year the Russian army liberated it from German occupation. That 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, with his depictions becoming more literal: brick kilns with incarcerated bodies, bars, stripes, smoke from chimneys.

Outside a small display from the Sidney Nolan Trust at the artist’s UK home 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 link between the artist’s Troy and Gallipoli series in the 1950s have been commonly acknowledged, Turley says Nolan’s third little-known trope – the Holocaust – was in fact “the vertical weave” in the thread of the artist’s great tapestry.

‘Link Anzacs with Auschwitz’: a watershed year

In 1961, Nolan wrote in his diary: “Link Anzacs with Auschwitz.”

It was the same year Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s chief architect of the “final solution to the Jewish question”, was captured in Argentina and placed on trial in Israel. The nine-month trial received intense international media coverage and, unlike the Nuremberg trials, relied heavily on graphic first person testimonies from dozens of concentration camp survivors.

Adolf Eichmann during his 1961 trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann was found guilty of war crimes against Jewish people, and executed the following year. Photograph: Popperfoto
© Provided by The GuardianAdolf Eichmann during his 1961 trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann was found guilty of war crimes against Jewish people, and executed the following year. Photograph: Popperfoto

The coverage brought Nolan’s preoccupation and dread to the forefront.

The artist made dozens of drawings in the final weeks of the trial, capturing the grim thin-lipped mouth, receding hairline and distinctive rounded spectacles of the war criminal sitting behind bulletproof glass.

On 15 December 1961 Eichmann was sentenced to death.

“This gave Nolan the release he needed … There was an outpouring of works over a matter of weeks, it was like a valve with the lid knocked off and the steam rushing out,” says Turley.

From mid-December to early January 1962, he painted 120 pictures.

“Smoke starts to appear [in Nolan’s paintings], the paint is scratched on, screams appear on mouths,” he says.

“By 29 December the heads had become skeletal, had become almost like skull and crossbones.”

For nine days, in late December to early January, Nolan appeared to rest. Then, a “torrent over two days”, Turley says.

“Consistent tortured imagery, 90 works of skeletons, trolleys, smoking crosses, crucifixions of smoke pouring out the top of skeletons being crucified … he just simply could not expel the trauma.

“It is a rambling, tumbling turmoil of work.”

In the space of just four weeks, Nolan created 220 pictures.

Early the same year, Nolan’s friend and poetry editor of the Observer, Al Alvarez, suggested the artist accompany him on a trip to Auschwitz. Alvarez was planning to write an essay on the camp, and wanted Nolan to provide the imagery.

The iron curtain was at its height, the Berlin Wall had cut a swathe through the heart of the German capital just months earlier, and the Cuban missile crisis was brewing. Nolan’s conviction that western civilisation was crumbling under a festering moral canker became more embedded in his consciousness.

“He became completely immersed in this human suffering,” says Turley.

“The concept that civilisation was failing was enormous, and Auschwitz was a representation of that failure … revealing a possible reality for the future that was horrifying.”

In the face of such abject abomination, and after taking a series of photographs at Auschwitz for Alvarez, Nolan resolved never to commit to canvas another image of the Holocaust. He resigned the Observer commission, and that outpouring of works created over a four-week period in 1961-62 was relegated to a dark unseen corner of the artist’s oeuvre for the next half-century.

“Auschwitz was beyond anguish for Nolan and it was a place where the utterly psychopathic was reality,” says Turley.

“The reality of Auschwitz, with the piles of prosthetic limbs, hair, suitcases, spectacles, and iron trolleys in the crematoria, and the way the camp was laid out, like a Mondrian grid designed to house hens waiting for the slaughter. It was a reality that went way beyond his previous imaginings and he just could not accept that inhumanity.”

Nolan, who saw art as a Geiger counter for civilisation, like an early warning system, could therefore not accept the art he had created on the Holocaust.

“He no longer knew how a disease could be painted, and he did not paint or speak on this for decades after.”

  • Shaken To His Core: The Untold Story Of Nolan’s Auschwitz is on show at the Sydney Jewish Museum until 23 October. 

Reference: The Guardian: Kelly Burke

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