Sidney Nolan’s Africa Interview With Andrew Turley And Revd Jonathan Evens 

Sidney Nolan's Africa Interview With Andrew Turley And Revd Jonathan Evens

Nolan’s Africa will be the first book on Sidney Nolan written with access to the newly opened Sidney Nolan archives at the National Library of Australia, containing never-before-seen diaries, photographs and personal notes. These will be revealed by Andrew Turley – a former Army Captain and UN Peacekeeper deployed in Cambodia – who has walked in Nolan’s footsteps across Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar. In Turley’s forthcoming book, influences and artistic process are laid bare – from the UN Headquarters in New York to the crematoria of Auschwitz and the plains of the Serengeti – a previously unrecorded history of Nolan’s art, themes, travels, experiences and relationships with thought leaders and politicians in a world at its most vulnerable.

Nolan’s Africa shines new light on Nolan and his examination of nature, human nature and the nature of mid-century Europe. For the first time, his responses are revealed to genocide, racial disenfranchisement, the decline of the West, the environment and our own existence threatened by nuclear war, changes in climate and the collapse of biodiversity. The book is part detective story, part adventure, part history.

JE: Your involvement with this story begins at a Sydney auction house in 2012. Could you tell us what you found there and why that began to connect you with Sidney Nolan’s story?

AT: A Nolan thunderbolt hit my partner, Rachael when she saw one of his paintings. Titled ‘Gorilla,’ it was hanging high on a wall and the image screamed at her from across the room. We hadn’t felt a painting like that before and she couldn’t look away. Without realising at the time, it’s where we first connected with Nolan, the man. He said the secret in the best works of art was in their appeal to an individual’s private world. Art should grab you from the end of the room and draw you in.

At first, the gorilla didn’t seem to have a public world. No history, aside from a few patchy allusions to an exhibition and two books. That’s where it all started. A few weeks later, by pure coincidence, I stumbled across a portrait of Sidney taken by Axel Poignant. There he was in the studio, down on one knee, his painted gorilla, cradled in the mist, floating behind him. That did it. We purchased our first Nolan work.

Sidney Nolan
Sidney Nolan

‘Gorilla’ was one of 35 large paintings unveiled at Nolan’s 1963 ‘African Journey’ exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, where the response was significant as newspapers ran review-after-review in the UK and around the globe – more than for any other of his exhibitions. That’s why it didn’t make sense that with such a response, the paintings themselves had almost no proper history. As I looked deeper, there were many more contradictions.

While almost every review praised their quality, critics fell into two groups: the established reviewers knowledgeably or intuitively grasping themes and concepts. At the same time, some of the younger cohorts were uncertain, struggling to pinpoint meaning. Some resorted to surface assessments – critiquing speed of execution or the thinness of paint – and often contradicting themselves.

Looking at the 35 paintings, it felt as if five exhibitions had been rolled together, creating one with a wide range of subjects, styles and emotions. And what of Nolan’s travel to Africa? Not once was it explored in any kind of detail. No timeframe, itinerary or alignment with the work.

Back in 2012, we realised that ‘Gorilla’ was not only a painting with a public history but a private picture of the man. That was the epiphany. Critics and historians used paintings to define Nolan. Instead of using Nolan’s eyes to define his paintings.

The more we uncovered, the more we felt a responsibility to define and preserve this critical but overlooked piece of British / Australian art history. So we travelled Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya, walking in Sidney’s footsteps. With Sidney’s diaries, letters and notes on Europe and Cynthia Nolan’s writing, it was suddenly possible to see a wonderfully complex narrative. 

So back to your original question, what connected us standing in front of ‘Gorilla’ in 2012? It was the same connection Eric Newton felt as he stood in front of the African paintings in 1963, describing it as an “excitement so urgent that it breaks through the picture surface like a scream”.

JE: You have become a collector of Nolan’s work, as well as a researcher of his life story. Describe the connection you have made with Nolan as a man and artist?

AT: I’ve spent countless hours poring over notebooks and diaries, studying photographs, press cuttings, correspondence and scribbled references; I must have read close to everything written on him. But I couldn’t connect the words to a proper understanding of the art. 

It was only when I was surrounded by his life AND his work that I began to understand the first and fundamental step in connecting. The man was the artist. If you understand the man, you understand the artist – his process, his art. If you start by looking only at the art, it will still hit you like lightning, but you can’t understand why…and that can be incredibly frustrating.

He was an enormously complex man. Intelligent, considered and endlessly curious – consuming philosophy, theatre, books, experience, adventure and embraced by Europe’s most influential intellectuals. The artist was exactly the same. So trying to define him from a single perspective or understand him in a sound bite was – and still is – impossible.

As an artist, he worked in series – not in discrete images – and each series was a Rubik’s cube of thought, events and beliefs.

There were two distinct parts to his process. An intentionally long period of continuous thought teasing out interconnectivity of themes – for example, the genesis of Africa began around 1957 – then something would intersect and trigger him. That meant when he hit the studio; the artistic struggle had already been resolved. The second part of his process was completely opposite to the first. He intentionally painted at great speed in an almost trance-like state so that the narratives, themes and emotions consciously and subconsciously overlapped. The forms evolved naturally as everything he had seen or read or heard or been a part of influenced the image in that particular moment. It is a process difficult to comprehend, but once you ‘see’ it you can’t un-see it. If you can connect with this, you can connect with Nolan of the 1960s.

One of my favourite Nolan anecdotes concerns a response from European intellectual Arthur Koestler. Koestler was a Hungarian Jew, a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. He fled the Gestapo before being interned in France then made his way to Britain. He wrote numerous essays on morality and political responsibility, examining the dilemma of Europe after World War II. Attending one of Sidney’s Marlborough openings, Koestler was heard to say to Sidney, “I have a painting of yours”, then leaning in closer, he added quietly, “Do not tell me about it; I know all about it”.

Sidney Nolan
Sidney Nolan

JE: Why has this period of Nolan’s life – his trips to Auschwitz and Africa – been less well documented than other aspects of his story?

AT: His Auschwitz work has never been documented until this year. Sidney himself buried the art, the history and the narrative. He first painted concentration camps in 1939, but Eichmann’s trial in 1961 so heavily involving Auschwitz victims, combined with six months of conversations with Al Alvarez, led to a dramatic series of 200 studies on paper. A month later, when Sidney and Alvarez did travel to Auschwitz, he was so overwhelmed he refused to paint it directly even though it echoed throughout his work in the 1960s. 

The African works, on the other hand, are representative of much of what went on in the 1960s. They are works that have been documented but never penetrated. 

There are two main reasons. The first was Sidney himself, who stayed tight-lipped about his themes. In a lost 1964 TV interview recently dug up, Nolan speaks about his African work and his processes. He was quite emphatic that painters shouldn’t talk about paintings. 

The second reason was the art world of the late fifties and early sixties. There had been a British fashion for Australian artists from 1958 and they were falling out of favour – but by then, Sidney had become part of the British circle. Over the same time, the American abstract expressionists had taken Europe by storm. The young critics declared a kind of culture war on the establishment and the old guard while the conservative old guard became more cautious and disinclined to hail fads. Clashes between competing aesthetics grew. Uncommercial art began to drive critical opinion and commercial success had its perils.

Into this maelstrom dropped Nolan’s first major exhibition in three years. An intensely popular, enormously successful painter with Australian heritage, using foreign sights and locations that were, on the surface, curiosities in mid-century Britain. All of it intentionally camouflaging commentary on humanity and its morals, questioning colonialism and building a relationship between the moral bankruptcy of mid-century civilisation and the man-made extinctions in both Europe and nature….an extension of his recent and intense Auschwitz experience, which itself had never been made public. 

The old guard of critics praised Nolan as a rare individualist, a painter-poet and an imaginative genius. The young Turks, without a backstory, praised image quality but condemned him as opportunist, too slick, too prolific, too good. Top all that off with nothing from Sidney. No evidence of philosophical, historical themes, events or experience woven through the tapestry. His reticence to discuss narratives was a double-edged sword. While it protected his creative process and left the work open to private interpretation, newspaper columns needed to be filled and over many years, the loudest, most contentious phrases became the most repeated, creating a kind of default history. Which really was no history at all.

JE: You have uncovered more than just the facts of what he did and where he went in this time. Can you tell us about the key discoveries that have taken you deeper into understanding Nolan in this period?

AT: Sidney was born before the end of World War I and alive for the Russian revolution, then influenced by the Spanish Civil War, the rise of the Nazi war machine and World War II, the Holocaust, the Korean War and rapidly escalating conflict between capitalism and communism in Europe. As a result, he had a life-long fascination with the notion of paradise and the consequences of its loss.

Europe affected him very deeply. By the 1960s, he was considered both British and Australian but admitted that Europe pulled at him more strongly than the Australian experience did. Sidney himself said that to paint, he had to belong to a doomed civilisation and express paradise. So, in reality, he was not the lyrical painter everybody thought he was, but a tragic painter.

And in the five years that led up to his African Journey, the world was in a constant state of tragedy. Sidney had direct experience with race and segregation in the United States, the Eichmann trial, Auschwitz, the Congo Crisis, the death – he said assassination – of the UN Secretary-General in Rhodesia and the Cuban missile crisis. As part of his process, he was absorbing a world preoccupied with crisis. 

At the same time, he was deeply connected with a triumvirate of art theorists. Clark, Spender and Adrian Stokes. His discussions with Clark on ‘Landscape into Art’ and art as an expression of the state of humanity were decades old. Nolan had met Spender during his time in the United States between 1958-1960, and they were close friends in London. Years later, Sidney also confirmed that his belief in the ‘lure of a painting’ stemmed directly from early writings of British critic, painter and writer Stokes, who in 1963 would drop into his studio for lunch.

They all believed that human and social consciousness could be evolved by an artist. But to do it, the artist had to absorb a place or landscape, layer it with symbolism and express it in a way that could connect with the inner world of the viewer. That way, an artist’s subject could become unconsciously absorbed and admired. Spender called it holding a mirror up to society, to provide “moral direction in the violence and disorder of contemporary existence.”

Nolan directly and indirectly referenced the approach as he outlined his artistic agenda for the decade. He felt mid-twentieth century artists were abandoning Humanism and nature, and therefore fundamental humanity, unbalancing it and unconsciously perpetuating a philosophy of disorder in their art. 

Sidney Nolan Gorilla
Sidney Nolan Gorilla

JE: Nolan was associated with significant thinkers and practitioners in relation to global issues at this time. He depicted crucifixes in many of his Auschwitz paintings while also exploring Humanism through his engagement with the United Nations and those he knew who worked for the UN. What were the main strands of his thinking in this period and what was going on for him philosophically?

AT: Two core themes emerged before and after his Auschwitz experience with Alvarez. The first was that in the 20th century, all humanity had the capability to be inhuman. This echoed Clark’s belief from ‘Landscape into Art’ that the world, and art, was abandoning fundamental humanity. The second was closely related. It was that art could be a warning system for society. Alvarez and Nolan discussed this many times – publicly and privately – an idea that if the world is allowed to flood in on a painting, it gets a sheen about it and holds something to do with the future. Philosophically Sidney was reconnected with Humanism.

In mid-1962, he became firm friends with Sir Julian Huxley, a key signatory of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto – a document demanding a shared life in a shared world for all living things. In 1961 – the same year as the Adolf Eichmann trial – Huxley had travelled to Africa and returned appalled by the extent of wildlife extermination. It led to his signing of the Morges Manifesto resulting in his co-founding of the World Wildlife Fund the same year. In 1962 Huxley also published a book of essays by thought leaders called ‘The Humanist Frame’. Stephen Spender, Nolan’s friend, contributed to the chapter on arts titled “Social Purpose and Integrity of the Artist”. Nolan started to take thematic steps from Auschwitz to Africa, from extermination and oppression to the preservation of life and the safeguarding of freedoms. 

Colliding with all this was an ideal that Sidney had built since 1958 – one of politics, art and a golden era of order – that was suddenly dashed. Sidney’s close friends Brian Urquhart and George Ivan Smith were at the UN Headquarters in New York and knew each other well. When Sidney was there between 1958 and 1960, Smith had organised a meeting between the internationally renowned Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, Sidney and C.P.Snow. World politics intertwined with art, and Nolan was instantly bound to the charismatic Secretary-General, a man driven to stabilise a world in chaos and one who believed in the arts as an extension of what he fought for.

The ideal was brutally crushed when colonial rule ended and civil war erupted in the Congo. Urquhart and Smith were deployed. Urquhart was kidnapped by rebel paratroopers, beaten unconscious and lucky to escape execution. Smith also survived the attempt, fortuitously dragged from the back of the kidnappers’ truck as it pulled away. Determined to negotiate an end to the growing world crisis Hammarskjöld secretly flew to Ndola, in Northern Rhodesia. Still, his aeroplane mysteriously crashed just short of the runway and he was killed. It was September 1961. 

The world was shocked by his death. It flooded Sidney’s social and political consciousness and his emotions ran high. He recorded nightmares of Hammarskjold’s body flung from the burning wreckage in his diary, proposed designs for memorials in New York and in Ndola, made a pilgrimage to the crash site during his African travel and painted a disturbing and violent African work in tribute. 

In conjunction with the trip to Auschwitz and Eichmann’s trial, Nolan saw the death of humanity and the West tearing itself apart. The animal extinctions of Africa a metaphor for the extinctions of Europe. The African people newly released from the European yoke, would inspire the first of his images. The hidden tribute to Hammarskjöld would follow soon after. And images of Eden, Christian art of the Middle Ages, Jewish symbolism and death itself, in bright colours and light strokes, would stalk his work. 

JE: Where did these reflections and his trips leave him in terms of the type of work and series of works that resulted?

AT: His trips gave him both an environment, and an intersecting trigger, to explore the themes that had been gestating for years. Where Francis Bacon had wildlife photos spread across the floor of his studio, Sidney got amongst it. He travelled Africa for just under three months, more than 5,000km by land and 14,000km by air across the threatened grasslands and wildlife of the Serengeti, then Uganda on the cusp of independence, followed by Ethiopia’s Old Testament landscapes.

He explained where travel left him a year afterwards, saying that with new experiences, he was forced in on himself to get something out. It is difficult to truly appreciate how deeply his work and series of works were triggered by geography but created entirely from his world of experience. He felt the only way to create great art was to marry visual reality with universal themes in the subconscious. Some critics could not see beyond the surface and called him a kind of travel painter. If you can see the ‘Rubik’s cube’, you can see that it was the complete opposite of the kind of painter he was. 

The best way to illustrate this is to use ‘Gorilla’. In Uganda’s deep south, he had tracked mountain gorillas with a guide, following them right up to the Congo border where civil war still raged only a year after Hammarskjold’s death. The night before, his host had explained how he had narrowly escaped Germany’s concentration camp and the following day, Sidney saw local women on hands and knees in the fields, their heads shaved, reminding him of Auschwitz. 

He trekked steep peaks through mountain mists and thick green bamboo-filled ravines in a landscape he later compared to “Eden”. He heard gorillas and saw their nests, but he didn’t see them. Coming down the mountain, he did see an old photograph, at a rest point, of a dead one-shot by a big game hunter. His excitement turned to melancholy later, describing the apes as “a better kind of man than we are” adding “so we kill them off”. Two nights later, on the back of a hotel receipt, he scribbled “gorilla nest use Bonnard’s Nude in Bathtub (1937) Petit Palais”.

Six months later, in the studio and the painter’s trance, everything melded together – a Ugandan image fed by his Auschwitz experience and ‘murder’ on the mountain mixed with ideas on tragedy. When he stepped back, the painting reflected Huxley, Humanism, a disappearing paradise and the human race complicit in the debasement of nature and civilisation. The form of Bonnard’s nude and bathtub stayed, replaced by ape and misty green landscape, the volcanic cones a shrine to injustice.

JE: While we can, no doubt, understand that the experience of Auschwitz left Nolan unable to paint, we might well imagine that to immerse himself in portraits and animal paintings from his African trip could be understood as a form of avoidance. You, however, argue that these images enabled him to process what he saw at Auschwitz and connect it with then-current world issues. 

AT: Based on everything we have spoken about, I would argue that question another way around. It was not that the African images enabled Sidney to process what he saw at Auschwitz. Still, far more than his process enabled everything he saw – including Auschwitz – to inform his African images. Symbolism was “necessary” to the extent that it was a fundamental outcome of his broader process. 

Interestingly, after Sidney’s African work, Alvarez wrote about the difficulty an artist faces trying to make art out of the concentration camps. I am sure this was drawn from Sidney’s experience. Alvarez said the artist must attempt to make art out of anti-art and perhaps the most convincing way to do it is by “displacement, disguise and indirection”.

JE: How is his secret symbolic system revealed in his work and why did he think it necessary?

AT: The Auschwitz symbolism or disguise in the African works was really only a secret to the extent that Sidney hadn’t openly talked about its genesis. It was unexpected and therefore invisible to almost everyone. But it is everywhere if you know where to look. The nature of his apes and monkeys are direct commentary on the nature of man. His elephants are as much about the Holocaust as they are about Africa. And the Serengeti animals are delivered as a form of extinction art. 

His first significant painting after travelling to Auschwitz was an elephant done only six weeks after he returned from Poland – but six months before Africa and nine months before any of his other ‘African’ paintings.

Have you heard of a book by Romain Garye… ‘The Roots of Heaven’? Sidney had two copies, one heavily annotated. In it, a man called Morel survives Nazi concentration camps by imagining elephants free on the African plains. He travels to Africa and fights to prevent their slaughter, believing that if humanity is to be saved, elephants – his own symbol of freedom and fundamental human rights – must be defended at all cost. 

Sidney’s ‘Auschwitz’ elephant was straight from Gary’s opening chapter. A painted translation of “those noble giants, pressed back more and more towards the marshes and condemned by man to disappear from the earth”. 

He was following through on the same line of reasoning that Clark followed in ‘Landscape into Art’ – the abandonment of nature and a fundamental humanity had unbalanced the world. It overlayed Huxley’s long-standing belief that human beings needed to protect and fight for the natural world to create a better future. And gave Sidney a way to address the inhumanity of Auschwitz, providing distance from the crematoria and barbed wire.

It is almost certain that Sidney’s experience of Nazi concentration camps influenced his most famous work from the Marlborough exhibition. It was a figure swathed in tattered robes based on the poverty, suffering and disenfranchisement he had seen in Ethiopia and unusually painted in the same way as his desiccated cattle carcasses from his ‘Drought’ series of 1952.

When Alvarez sent a draft article to Sidney after Auschwitz, it vividly recalled bewildered Jewish prisoners rounded up from slums and ghettos “herded into cattle trucks”. Nolan’s poet-hero Rimbaud had lived in the Ethiopian city of Harar; one of his most famous poems, ‘A Season in Hell’ – which Sidney could quote by heart – spoke of Betail de la Misere, “cattle of the slums” or “poverty’s cattle” and figures trapped in a hell whose gates “were opened by the Son of Man”. Sidney called his painting ‘Figure at Harar’. 

JE: In Europe and the US, the period following the Second World War was a time of passionate artistic activity in which a modernist preoccupation with religion and spirituality was apparent. In particular, the image of the crucified Christ became, for many artists, synonymous with the suffering endured through World War II, most substantively in the Holocaust. How aware was Nolan of that focus among artists at the time and what connections would he have made with such ideas?

AT: What did he make of those ideas? Art! His Italian crucifixes of 1955, crucifixions of 1957, then 1961 right through into the 1970s. The crucifixion motif was caustic in his Auschwitz paintings – graphic works of nailed figures, skeletons in wheelbarrows under smoking crosses and bodies laid out in neat rows. But these were works seen only by Nolan himself. In his African work, it became a spiritual image, but no one saw the whole picture. Did you know he had an ornate old wooden crucifix in his studio? It is still there on display. 

Clark had written about the role religion played in a landscape of symbols and the art historical concept of paradise, the enclosed garden as a place to escape worldly fears and the Garden of Eden as a vision of hope. Sidney saw the enclosed ‘garden’ on the Serengeti Plains and Eden in Uganda. And there are few civilisations more connected to Christ and the crucifixion than Ethiopia, where he climbed barefoot and bloodied up rawhide ropes to explore a centuries-old monastery built into the cliff. He walked ancient churches whose walls were painted with scenes of the flight into Egypt and the Descent from the Cross; he took photos of rocky hillsides sown with old Coptic crosses and saw, high on a dusty hill, a man in a tattered robe silhouetted against the sky, standing still, arms horizontal along with staff across his shoulders. Sidney called him “A walking crucifixion.

Only five days after completing his tortured stream of Auschwitz skeletons and crosses, Sidney attended an exhibition at The Royal Academy. At this point, he expected to be in Africa in early March. Several of the paintings he saw there became symbolic reorganisations in his African works.

One was by van Dyck – a version of ‘Ecce Homo’ – words used by Pontius Pilate as he presented a beaten Christ to the crowds before his crucifixion. It was a figure with eyes lowered to evade his tormentors, a head crowned in thorns and a face filled with sadness. Sidney knew its meaning had been extended to represent the suffering of war and the Holocaust. One year later he reorganised it to represent pure nature and sinful man – the tormented and the tormentor. This time it was an ape, backed by bamboo and Ugandan green, but an identical pose, a crown of thorn-like fur, and – typical of Sidney – a clue to his apes in the Latin translation – ‘Behold the Man’. 

His thematic connector was that violence appeared to be one of the basic human instincts in mid-century society. In the same way, Pilate had condemned Jesus, and the Nazis had condemned the Jews, it appeared to Sidney that humankind was condemning nature. If there was any doubt about his pathway, two years later, Sidney completed a very small series of mixed media crucifixion works. Alongside Byzantine Saints and ‘Ecce Homo’ figures, a variation had a baboon pinned to an Auschwitz cross and beneath, staring up at the ape, are helmeted German soldiers. 

JE: Researching and writing ‘Nolan’s Africa’ has taken eight years of your life. What are your hopes for the book and beyond?

AT: First and foremost, I hope the history is recognised and enjoyed for the extraordinary story that it is – Nolan’s art, adventure and life, the global politics, threads of world history, insight, philosophy and artistic contribution. Secondly, I hope evidence, and not opinion, can become the benchmark for understanding Nolan. If it were to achieve only one thing, it would be dialogue. Informed dialogue to allow his work – particularly his African works – to find its rightful place in the history of modernism. 

JE: What do you appreciate now about Nolan and his work that wasn’t apparent before beginning your research and writing?

I recognise now the impossibility of defining him through a selection of individual paintings lifted in isolation as though he created from a divine and discrete act of inspiration. That attempting to reconcile his output of 1943 against his output of 1963 is futile – even he acknowledged that only a single series of work in its entirety would be a true record of how his brain worked at that moment.

The realisation that for every series, his artistic struggle went on for years. And living the moments before he painted them went beyond theory. It belonged to life: Auschwitz in a dying gorilla, the death of Hammarskjöld on the open savannah or the global winds of change blowing through African faces. 

Or how earnest he was about modernism and the act of painting, living a revolutionary process – from the beginning to the end of his career – to the exclusion of all else. But how evolutionary the images were – continuous and fluid.

Or through the 1960s, just how morally destitute he believed civilisation was. “You learn something from the civilisation that helps you paint the deserts” now makes sense, with all the nuance of Europe in paintings of Africa, done on the banks of the Thames. 

I can understand why great men called him a genius. And now, when I look at his work, I have the same response as Koestler.

Words: Revd Jonathan Evens with Andrew Turley Top Photo: Turley Ash – Louie Douvis: Andrew Turley and Rachael Ash with works by Sidney Nolan, including Gorilla, far left. © Louie Douvis

Sidney Nolan: Colour of the Sky – Auschwitz Paintings, 13 August – 26 September, Gallery, The Rodd 

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