fig. 1 
Sidney Nolan

The major frustration for students of the revolutionary 1940s has been that its most important work has remained largely hidden until the last two years. Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series and Albert Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil although exhibited, have been best known in reproduction. The remarkable collection of John and Sunday Reed was seen briefly at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art but when the Museum closed it reverted to a private collection. The opening of the Heide Gallery in 1981 and the Australian National Gallery in 1982, the main beneficiaries of the Reed collection, transformed things and finally brought the achievement of the 40s into the public estate. 

Compared with even the limited exposure the Kelly paintings received, the earlier and in many ways more significant Wimmera paintings of Sidney Nolan have been the lost paintings of the 40s. A small handful (figs 1–4) – most notably Wimmera (from Mount Arapiles), 1943, Railway yards, Dimboola, 1943, Flour lumper, Dimboola, 1943 and Dimboola, 1944 – surfaced occasionally in the 1960s and have been seen in reproduction. These were sufficient to indicate the level of Nolan’s achievement between 1942 and 1944, the years of Nolan’s army service. However, the great majority of the Wimmera paintings have remained in Nolan’s possession since the early 1960s and the series has only been exhibited once since 1943, in ‘Sidney Nolan: The Wimmera Paintings’ at David Jones’ Gallery, Adelaide in 1970. 

The importance of the 1983 gift by Sir Sidney and Lady Nolan of twenty-five of these Wimmera paintings and nine drawings to the National Gallery of Victoria can hardly be over-estimated.1The Wimmera paintings are the centre-piece of the exhibition. ‘Sidney Nolan: the city and the plain’ held at the National Gallery of Victoria from 12 October to 27 November 1983. The two essays contained in the catalogue, ‘Under the Sign of the Plain and the Sky’ by Richard Haese and ‘The City and Ern Malley’ by Jan Minchin deal with both aspects of Sidney Nolan’s work in the exhibition. The Wimmera period, which stretched from May 1942 to February 1944, was crucial to Nolan and his art, and to the history of Australian landscape painting. The majority of the works are landscapes – Nolan’s main preoccupation in the Wimmera. The presence, however, of two key versions of Bathers (figs 5–6) and the link between Railway guard, Dimboola (fig. 7) and Nolan’s series of portrait heads indicate two further strands of Nolan’s art from this period. Several paintings are tentative or experimental – others must be considered landmarks in the history of Australian landscape painting. 

The Nolan gift could not have been made at a more appropriate moment, coinciding fortuitously with the discovery of Nolan’s correspondence from the Wimmera years.2The letters are in the Reed papers and in the possession of Mr Barrett Reid. Apart from having been made available for the catalogue of ‘Sidney Nolan: the city and the plain’, the papers remain closed. From an historical perspective the correspondence is every bit as fascinating as the art itself. Throughout the two year period Nolan maintained an almost daily exchange with his friends and supporters Sunday Reed and John Reed. The Nolan correspondence (amounting to over 200 letters) is a day by day account of Nolan’s social and intellectual life and a sustained commentary on his art and of things seen and experienced. For comparison one thinks of the Streeton and Roberts correspondence published in From Spike to Bulldog, or more accurately, given its size, character and range, of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. The Nolan letters represent a documentation rare in any context and unique in Australian terms. 

The first and most obvious value of the papers is in documenting Nolan’s paintings. In many instances Nolan signed and dated his paintings from the 40s – sometimes with the actual day. Notwithstanding this fact, much of the published information on individual works is inaccurate; even where dates exist they have been overlooked or misread. In the case of undated work most guesses have been wrong, often by as much as three years. Nolan’s work is, it must be said, notoriously difficult in this regard, the artist often returning to themes and subjects after long breaks or working more or less simultaneously in several stylistic modes – and the choice of subject matter is no guarantee that it is connected with Nolan’s immediate circumstances. For example Lagoon, Wimmera (fig. 8), probably a depiction of the lagoon on the outskirts of Nhill where Nolan was based for six months in the first half of 1943, was painted in Ballarat in October 1943 some considerable time after he had left the area. The painting’s immediacy seems to cast doubt on the accuracy of the date Nolan has written on the back, however the open textured brushwork confirms the relationship to other paintings produced at this time. Although only a few Wimmera paintings are dated in this way by the artist, Nolan’s letters have made it possible to date the majority (in some cases to the time of the actual day) and there is now little doubt of their precise order. 

Nolan’s relationship with the Reeds was based on both intimate friendship and a deeply felt sense of common endeavour. While with an Army supply company in Dimboola, Horsham, Nhill and Ballarat, Nolan remained closely involved with the affairs of the Contemporary Art Society (he was on the council) and was actively concerned with setting up the Reed & Harris publishing form and its first publications in 1943 (in 1944 he became a partner). As well as this kind of mutual involvement, Nolan relied on the Reeds to take care of the details of storing and framing paintings and arranging his two one man exhibitions while in the Wimmera. In addition, the Reeds helped to ensure for the artist an adequate supply of materials; some supplies were found by Nolan in the local towns, but Ripolin, which Nolan was using exclusively at this time, came from Sydney. Sunday Reed usually primed and prepared Nolan’s canvases and boards. As paintings were completed they were dispatched by rail back to Heidelberg for safe keeping. 

All three correspondents knew themselves to be involved – to be among the prime movers – in art and political events of great moment in Australia. And it is this sense of historical moment at a time of rapid and far reaching change that stamps the correspondence with such a degree of seriousness and commitment. Questions touching on war, politics, and the artist’s place in these things are central to the exchange. In 1943, for example, Nolan was still seriously debating whether or not to become a member of the Communist Party, an issue discussed at length with John Reed. 

What makes the exchange so important, however, is the remarkable – indeed, the quite unique – qualities of intellect and sensibility of the three. A major loss is that Sunday Reed’s letters have not survived. There is, nonetheless, sufficient evidence in Nolan’s responses to indicate the extraordinary level of toughness and penetration that she brought to her observations and judgments. John Reed, blunter and more pragmatic, was equally challenging in this realm of art and ideas. The Reeds acted in part as sounding boards for Nolan, but this was seldom a passive role. All saw themselves engaged in a struggle for a new art, a struggle for nothing less than a new sensibility. As with Angry Penguins, the letters bear witness to an involvement embracing practically every aspect of contemporary culture: painting, poetry, prose, film, political and sociological debate. Nolan’s reading in the Wimmera includes Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Proust, Gide, Rilke, Joyce, Spengler, Lawrence, Kierkegaard, Freud, Kafka, Auden, Spender, Julian Green, Heppenstall, Lenin, Marx – a list encyclopaedic in its range and scope. Most are subjected to intense scrutiny and debate in the letters. 

Nolan brought the same kind of rigour and intensity to his observations of the world in which he found himself as to his painting and reading. Here is his account of the landscape in the Little Desert near Wail, written to Sunday Reed, not long after his arrival in the Wimmera. 

A little town with four houses or so and a cream and red church. Still stay in Dimboola but go down to Wail each morning in the trucks. Being out in the open on top of the loaded trucks and the wind icy it seems to intensify looking at the fields. There is so little to break the vision and the whole landscape appears to surround you everywhere except the particular minute patch that is yourself. Something like dipping the spoon in cream. Outside the shed is a small lagoon with a few gum trees that break up the colours of the church. When we landed this morning alongside the lagoon [there] was a very round and heavy red and white goose. He was sitting down and looked like a monument that some race that was quite different from Australians had left in defiance of the hot thin air and transitory wooden buildings. At just the opposite end … from seeing a magpie sitting there. 

 

I wished you could have seen this morning the sun when it first came through. The air was clear and distinct but the sky seemed a soft mist almost as if there was an ordinary morning mist, but one that stopped a few feet away and the air between belonging altogether to another day. The line of the desert was a dark blue, the color [sic] the sea often promises during the thunder storm but never quite reaches. Looking very much like the sea only due to the planes of the small ridges on the desert presenting a profile against the sky of various fragments of an ocean and not the single fusion that always signifies the sea. On top of this blue line and more like a million ropes heaped together than anything else was a semi-circle of this compact pink light, isolated in its own feeling and part of the sky only because of nostalgic mischance. A strange thing to float over the burnt honeysuckle trees.3Nolan to Sunday Reed, 24 May 1942, Reed papers. 

Prose of this order is rare in any circumstances. Nolan’s language, as lucid and unerring in its precision as his images, reveals the extraordinary quality of his seeing. It was a quality that Sunday Reed possessed in equal measure. Nolan’s writing was, in part, a matter of one sensibility meeting the expectations of the other. 

Nolan’s capacity to see, and to recall with such acuity, enabled him to dispense with the need for sketching as a means of storing up visual images and ideas. As the small chalk sketches in the collection and in the 1980–81 exhibition ‘Sidney Nolan works on paper retrospective’ reveal, Nolan did draw extensively during his first months in the Wimmera. The sketches, however, were a substitute for more ambitious paintings at a time when army duties made painting all but impossible. All the paintings in the Wimmera collection are studio works, invariably completed in a single session but their preparation took the form of an intense and prolonged contemplation of the landscape and the life of the Wimmera and its towns – a matter of days even weeks, of brooding concentrated observation. 

The letters provide fascinating glimpses of Nolan’s working circumstances and various studios in the Wimmera. The first was set up in Dimboola in November 1942 in a requisitioned garage used for storing the army rations that it was Nolan’s duty to maintain. The following description is not from the Reed papers but from a letter written at this time to an army friend, Ron Anderson: 

I have rigged up a studio in the room next to the office here & been working on and off all the time between such duties as the army indicates. The desert proves as powerful as ever. I would like to settle there for some time & really know it. Some quite hot days, yesterday providing a taste of what the Wimmera could be like with north winds & dust. There is quite a vibrant feel in the air on quiet days, brittle almost if it were not so clear.4Nolan to Ron Anderson, 11 November 1942, Anderson papers.

Four months later, early in February 1943, Nolan was in Nhill where he was able to settle down to his longest sustained working period in the Wimmera. He had just received a new supply of Ripolin and wrote to Sunday Reed: ‘Got a door on a couple of boxes for a studio & writing there now. Ripolin sitting up very functional in a row & Auden at the other end & Rousseau & Brueghel’.5Nolan to Sunday Reed, 2 February 1943, Reed papers. Rousseau was a continuing interest; the reference to Brueghel is a reminder that Nolan painted Icarus at this time, a work related to the Bathers series (figs 5–6) and based on Brueghel’s mythic Landscape with the fall of Icarus, c.1558. After Nolan left Nhill there was a considerable break before he was able to establish another studio, this time late in 1943 in rooms rented in Ballarat. He returned to Dimboola and his earlier working environment for a third and final stay of one month in January 1944. Soon after arriving back he wrote to Sunday Reed: ‘And so this is Dimboola, if the hand will relax I can see about doing justice to your muslins … I have unpacked in the studio, a Renoir to keep me company, & a profusion of canvas.’6Nolan to Sunday Reed, 5 January 1944, ibid. 

The range of the artists who kept Nolan company in the Wimmera was as rich and diverse as the writers: Rousseau, Brueghel, Renoir, Turner, Giotto, Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne. In addition to these great innovative masters, there was Nolan’s deep preoccupation with the art of children and with primitive and naive art generally. Several of the names listed above – Renoir, for example – may occasion surprise, but most of these sources have long been recognised as major influences in Nolan’s art. What has not been adequately understood, however, is precisely how such influences operated, most writers being content to cite influences in relation to more or less randomly selected examples. The Wimmera paintings and the new evidence make possible a far more rigorous and coherent account of Nolan’s development in terms of these roots. The preoccupation with primitive and naive art is maintained throughout the Wimmera period and is readily apparent in the early Wimmera, 1942 (fig. 10) and Flour lumper, Dimboola, 1943 (fig. 3); this is paralleled and overshadowed by a shift towards a more exacting and objective response to the facts of vision. Linked with Nolan’s discovery of landscape, the move led to a profound involvement with the art of Cézanne. The extent of this debt and Nolan’s sense of the enormity of the challenge is conveyed in a letter to John Perceval written in December 1943: 

I don’t doubt for a moment that I am not great in the sense Cézanne is … if I live to be six hundred it is only a few facets of his work I can absorb. That is because only aspects of him are practicable to me. What he does to me and that to a large degree is to provide a constant impetus that is never far from me when I am looking at the bush.7Nolan to John Perceval, c. December 1943, ibid. 

Virtually every Wimmera painting betrays this impetus to some extent. In a direct sense, however, Cézanne’s influence related to two distant phases of Nolan’s art and development: the Dimboola and Nhill paintings between October 1942 and July 1943, and the last Wimmera paintings of January 1944. The first phase begins with Dimboola, 1942 (fig. 11) and culminates in two of Nolan’s finest landscapes, Wimmera (from Mount Arapiles), 1943 (fig. 1) and Kiata, 1943 (fig. 12), the last of these being in the collection of the Australian National Gallery. At this time Nolan also painted a number of versions of Bathers (figs 5–6). In a letter to Sunday Reed written in July 1943 at the end of this period, Nolan indicated how significant Cézanne had become as a focus for looking at the Australian landscape: 

I am sure about the bathers … a good feeling about the sea being blue and standing up. Perhaps I’m thinking of the Cézanne sea. Thinking today with the shadows from houses & trees just how much we are going to need Cézanne’s clearness to look at the landscape, Kiata is something suspended at high noon & all the paintings have been so much summery & now [in winter] the light doesn’t go like that & what is constant beneath … between Cézanne & Turner there is no saying what happens.8Nolan to Sunday Reed, 18 July 1943, ibid. 

Nolan saw in Cézanne’s landscapes, and the early analytic cubist work of Picasso, a means of integrating the elements of his own paintings. Dimboola demonstrates Nolan’s first solution to this problem of integration; the architectural elements of the town – silos, churches, houses – are aligned close to the picture plane within a looser field of natural forms. For Nolan, Dimboola ‘was unique for the ultimate way the trees & houses all came together’.9Nolan to Sunday Reed, c. July 1942, ibid. The frontality of Dimboola (fig. 11) anticipates the more radical Kiata (fig. 12) and Wimmera (from Mount Arapiles) (fig. 1) in which this influence is subsumed within a powerful and personal idiom. 

The second phase of Cézanne’s influence took the form of a more concentrated exploration of Cézanne’s late style – especially the late watercolours. Nolan had seen at least four major paintings of Cézanne in the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art in 1939. One of these, a watercolour of Monte Sainte Victoire from the collection of the Courtauld Institute was on show at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1943. In January 1944 Nolan wrote to Sunday Reed after an afternoon by the Wimmera River: 

I had a painter’s think lying on my back on one of the seats & watching from that angle the play and interplay of recesses in the gum trees around the river … you can’t get far without seeing Cézanne in every inch of it & yet this park is more Cézanne than he himself. He would have loved it. Our light here probably sets a more pattern feeling than that of France … The park is often naturally & intrinsically just like the trees in his last bathers pictures, in fact some of his last landscapes. I was not far from understanding him very well this evening & my eye, even when I refer to paintings rough as bags is generally remembering the precision – poise – of paint that is in the green painting in the gallery.10Nolan to Sunday Reed, 27 January 1944, ibid. 

In Near Dimboola (fig. 13), one of the last of his paintings in the Wimmera, Nolan takes up this challenge, the stretch of river bank becoming a complex and shifting field of modulated brushstrokes between the flat open spaces of river and sky. 

In Sidney Nolan’s Wimmera paintings the central dynamic is between the observer and the observed – a preoccupation fundamental to the whole modernist enterprise from Cézanne onwards. Nolan’s pre-Wimmera painting had its roots in the tradition of symbolism which sought to transcend external reality. This symbolism is not wholly abandoned in the Wimmera years, but the essential character of the Wimmera paintings is of a different order, an attempt to render as objectively as possible subjective visual and experimental realities. The degree of awareness and sophistication that Nolan brought to bear on the complex problem of the relationship between the art of painting and the art of seeing is apparent in this last statement made in a letter to Sunday Reed: 

I was thinking of the ride we had on the merry go round at St. Kilda … & I remembered quite suddenly that all around the outside of the merry go round there have always been old-fashioned paintings of tiger hunts, elephants, and throwing lassoes in South America. You remember me telling you there are tigers everywhere, on bags of flour, on hundreds of tins of jam stacked behind the grocer. On big hoardings over cities and so they are around merry go rounds also. And that is the workers’ art – all they have got. But the same thing works as with savages. We don’t paint over faces anymore, but we decorate the community, lions and tigers are in fact all around. They are mostly pretty filthy & not intrinsic but that’s the system. In the case of the merry go round it is pretty spontaneous though, & if you can imagine the scene … as real as the actual scene in front of you, & the lawns and sea behind it, then you may make a true comment … with some claim to being really objective. Juxtaposition of things as they really are [italics added], not a selected array of images posed up to make a picture that will fit in with whatever symbols you have decided they mean. No symbols, a tiger is just a tiger wherever he happens to be. 

 

Perhaps that is where things go astray with painting. We’re not asked to say what figures, or apples, mean. We’re asked to say what they look like … You remember Brueghel’s picture ‘Icare’. That is what man looks like falling into the sea. There is never a dramatic close-up in painting as far as I can see, only things happening in the rather scattered assortment of things that make up a given scene. Railway lines are never far away from the story & up here the silos are not far either, & that is the way they have got to be painted.11Nolan to Sunday Reed, 29 March 1943, ibid. 

Nolan’s great achievement during the Wimmera years was an art encapsulating a dynamic and contradictory reality – a reality defined in Nolan’s own words as the ‘juxtaposition of things as they really are’. The Nolan–Reed correspondence records the struggle to give this reality form, and reveals the resources and sophistication brought to the task. The letters offer a portrait of the artist at one of the major turning points of his development. This turning point, in spite of long being acknowledged as one of the most critical in the history of Australian art, has hitherto been known only in vague outline and from a handful of works. If Nolan’s Wimmera period could be described as the ‘lost’ years, the collection of the Wimmera paintings now in the National Gallery of Victoria and the Nolan correspondence together represent a Nolan regained. 

Richard Haese, Art History Department, Latrobe University (in 1983). 

Notes

1          The Wimmera paintings are the centre-piece of the exhibition. ‘Sidney Nolan: the city and the plain’ held at the National Gallery of Victoria from 12 October to 27 November 1983. The two essays contained in the catalogue, ‘Under the Sign of the Plain and the Sky’ by Richard Haese and ‘The City and Ern Malley’ by Jan Minchin deal with both aspects of Sidney Nolan’s work in the exhibition. 

2          The letters are in the Reed papers and in the possession of Mr Barrett Reid. Apart from having been made available for the catalogue of ‘Sidney Nolan: the city and the plain’, the papers remain closed. 

3          Nolan to Sunday Reed, 24 May 1942, Reed papers. 

4          Nolan to Ron Anderson, 11 November 1942, Anderson papers. 

5          Nolan to Sunday Reed, 2 February 1943, Reed papers. 

6          Nolan to Sunday Reed, 5 January 1944, ibid. 

7          Nolan to John Perceval, c. December 1943, ibid. 

8          Nolan to Sunday Reed, 18 July 1943, ibid. 

9          Nolan to Sunday Reed, c. July 1942, ibid. 

10        Nolan to Sunday Reed, 27 January 1944, ibid. 

11        Nolan to Sunday Reed, 29 March 1943, ibid.