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Sidney Nolan's Gallipoli Paintings
By George Johnston

It was during the European winter of 1955-6, and on the Greek island of Hydra, where I was living at the time, that Sidney Nolan's Gallipoli paintings had their genesis.  

Nolan and his wife were staying on the island in the great old house of the Greek painter, Ghika (Nikos Hadzikiriakos),.  He had for the moment finished with Kelly and was searching for new themes for his painting: in pursuit of this he had become quite obsessively immersed in our copies of Homer's Iliad and Robert Graves's Greek Mythology. Yet, nourished by these and living in the very heartland of classical mythology, he still clung to his particular Australianism; he was able somehow to associate the great Trojan epic tragedy with drought paintings he had done, with an Australian background of parched earth, dust, prickly vegetation, death, heat, bones in the dry burning of the sun. The ringing clang of brows armour, audible now only in the mind, evoked to his attentive inner ear the mute clangour of Australia's own brazen Inland. In images separated by the width of the world and 3,000 years of time, he sensed a parallel, indeed a mutual poetry concerned with human struggle.  

He wanted to paint Troy, he said, in its pitiless heroics, in the true brutality of its images, within the impassive void of cosmic indifference; to alter those prettified costumed conceptions of Achaeans and Trojans so cloyingly fixed by the painters of the Renaissance; to give the story back the savage, sweaty, cruel, dusty, unadorned human grandeur that Homer had sung.  

He painted away as if in a ferment of excitement for five months, experimental sketches in oils or inks on heavy art paper mostly, hundreds and hundreds of studies concerned with nude figures interlocked and grappling, centaur-like horsemen, desiccated skulls and bones in formalized masks and helmets, the harsh edges of dry rock and brittle, snaggled vegetation against burning bright skies. There was no thought in his mind of a finished painting. 'I am just trying to work it out,' he would explain, surveying a vast floor carpeted with a hundred separate sketches. It will take a long time... maybe ten years before I'm ready to have a proper go at it.'  

The switch from ancient Troy to Gallipoli came in a curious way, Alan Moorehead had been living on the neighbouring island of Spetses writing his book, Gallipoli, and a very deeply felt memoir of his, dealing with the Anzas had already appeared in The New Yorker. It affected me, and I gave it to Nolan to read. It was like unlocking a door. From then on, when the retzina circled and wild winter buffeted at the shutters of the waterfront taverns, we would talk far into the small hours about this other myth of our own, so uniquely Australian and yet so close to that much more ancient myth of Homer's. Nolan's poetic imagination saw them as one, saw many things fused into a single poetic truth lying, as the true myth should, outside time.  


Gallipoli soldiers

Photographs remembered from the old Anzac Book of nude soldiers grappling with each other or swimming horses in Anzac Cove, naked bathers stretched sunbaking on the splintered grey planks of St Kilda Baths (the subjects of Nolan's very first paintings), the naked, sweating, antique figures of long ago locked in bitter eternal conflict on that coastal plain that looked clear across mythic waters to the craggy ridges of Gallipoli - to Nolan all were one. 'I think I might tackle Gallipoli first' he said, 'as a way of feeling into the bigger thing of Troy.'  

In the spring of 1956 the time came for him to leave Hydra, but he pursued his new obsession. Not from books any longer - he now had to walk on the actual plain of Troy, clamber the mound of Hissarlik, trace where Scamander flowed. Postcards came. From Gallipoli, from the site of ancient Troy, from Mudros and Lemnos, from Turkey, the Black Sea. Cards bearing little sketches - a spike of asphodel springing from the flints and kookluthia and the scruff of wild thyme, thorns on a ridge, rocks dropping into a clear sea, emergent heads (less portraits of Anzacs than faces half remembered from strange dreams), hinting drifts of music heard from behind the dark arras of time.  


  Crouching soldier wearing plumed hat

We corresponded intermittently but I did not see him for several years. He was back in London and a poem by an Australian had diverted him again, into exploration of another of the ancient myths, Leda and the Swan. 'It helps to work some of those other things out,' he wrote in a letter. 'Its another step towards Troy.'  

At the beginning of 1961 t was in London and visited him at his Thames-side studio in Putney. That was the first time I saw any of the finished Gallipoli paintings. He had gone beyond the stage of sketches now and was painting big. He was very busy at this stage with other shows, commissions, decor for theatre, but whenever he could find the time he returned feverishly to the Gallipoli pictures. The studio was stacked with them - those haunting ageless heads that seemed neither dead nor alive, neither of the past nor of the present, eerie centaur figures half submerged in Lethe-like waters, nude men who wrestled or writhed or groped against harsh cliffs, faces like memories impasted on the textures of blood and stone, grotesque forms that were more living than rock, more indestructible than flesh, gouts of colour like starshells or splashes of blood, placid drownings, the games of innocence, saddle-me-nag and cockfighting, a butterfly, a maimed, nude figure sprouting a crutch where a leg had been. The struggles and the spirit of man spreading and spreading across timeless spaces. Gallipoli. What does the name matter?  

I remembered one howling meltermi-swept night in Ghika's house when all the kerosene lamps had been dancing in a jump of shadows, and in a rare outburst of emotional passion he had flung his sketches down and cried, 'You can't paint it! You need metal and a forge, its got to clang!' But he had painted it. I realized that, there in Putney, with a damp black fog creeping quietly up the river banks. Perhaps without even realizing it he had begun painting Troy. It might take all of those ten years before he finishes it, but he will do it, I think.


Young soldier


Gallipoli light horseman mounted on a horse swimming in the sea


Gallipoli landscape with body, sea and bird


Soldiers, one with rifle, in Gallipoli landscape with blue sea and hills


Gallipoli landscape with cliffs, three trees and blue sea

These are a few of the 251 Sidney Nolan 'Gallipoli Series' paintings held by The Australian War Memorial. They were donated by Sir Sidney Nolan  in memory his brother, Raymond, who drowned in 1945 on his return from military service at the end of the Second World War.    Australian War Memorial

George Johnston article  ART and Australia, September 1967
Website HF 2016