20
Mar
11

Review: ‘Sidney Nolan: Drought Photographs’ at Australian Galleries, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 3rd March – 27th March 2011

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“In the meantime the landscape presents scenes of desolation which mark the memory of all who see it. Thousands of carcasses are strewn on the baked and cracked plains. There is a brooding air of almost Biblical intensity over millions of acres which bear no trace of surface waters. The dry astringent air extracts every drop of moisture from the grass, leaving it so brittle that it breaks under foot with the tinkling of thin glass.”

Sidney Nolan. Epic Drought in Australia 1952

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“Peering into the pantry, which held a particular fascination for me, my eye was caught by several jars of preserved fruit that stood on the otherwise empty shelves and by a few dozen diminutive crimson apples on the sill of the window darkened by the yew tree outside. And as I looked on these apples which shone through the half-light … the quite outlandish thought crossed my mind that these things … had all outlasted me …”

W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn 1988

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This is a superb exhibition of 61 black and white photographs by Sidney Nolan. The photographs were shot using a medium format camera and are printed in square format from the original 1952 negatives. They were taken near the Birdsville Track in Queensland and were commissioned at the time by the Brisbane newspaper The Courier Mail. Although not intended to be studies for the later ‘Drought paintings’ they have become, were the beginning of, can be seen as, preparatory ideas pre sketching and painting.

There are two proof sets of the ‘Drought Photographs’ (including the one displayed on the gallery wall) that are printed on a cool-toned Type C photographic paper (analogue to digital to analogue) at about 8″ square. These are the less successful of the prints for the “beauty is in the box.” The more impressive prints are the edition of 10 that is for sale, either as individual prints or as a whole folio, that are printed at approximately 10″ square on a slightly warm-toned Canson Infinity 310 gsm archival inkjet paper (analogue to digital). These are the knockout prints with lots of mid-toned hues – for the warm tone of the paper more closely matches the feel of the dusty Outback. They possess a very “inky” atmosphere and wonderful light. Make sure that you get the gallery staff to show you some of these prints!

The work itself is a joy to behold. The photographs hang together like a symphony, rising and falling, with shape emphasising aspects of form. The images flow from one to another. The formal composition of the mummified carcasses is exemplary, the resurrected animals (a horse, for example, propped up on a fifth leg) and emaciated corpses like contemporary sculpture. Here I am reminded of some of the work of Henry Moore.

The handling of the tenuous aspects of human existence in this uniquely Australian landscape is also a joy to behold. Through an intimate understanding of how to tension the space between objects within the frame Nolan’s seemingly simple but complex photographs of the landscape are previsualised by the artist in the mind’s eye before he even puts the camera to his face. Unfortunately I don’t have any photographs to show you of these works but for me they were one of the highlights of the exhibition, rivalling any of the work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers photographing in the American Dustbowl during the 1930s. Finally, some great Australian landscape photographs!!

As the curator Damian Smith notes of both strands, “Throughout the series emphasis shifts from detached observation to intimate contemplation – between the forces of the outer landscape to the darkness of the animals’ inner being.”

I would not say the landscapes are ‘detached observation’. Both forms require intimate contemplation.

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Let us investigate the presence of these images further.

“Barthes mentions the apparently “universal” experiences of birth and death, experiences that, he points out, are in fact always mediated by historical and thus political circumstances. Echoing a famous remark by Bertolt Brecht, he contends that “the failure of photography seems to me to be flagrant in this connection: to reproduce death or birth tells us, literally, nothing.”“1

“To reproduce death or birth tells us, literally, nothing.” Hence, you could argue, through an appeal to nostalgia for a mythology of the Australian bush we are held at the surface of an identity. Drought, desolation, despair, death. But these photographs go beyond the reproduction of death, go beyond mere nostalgia, by pushing the prick of consciousness, Barthes punctum, into a sense of spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority – an experience Barthes “sums up as the “having-been-there” that is the basis of every photograph’s sense of witness.”2

The new punctum becomes other than the detail – no longer of form but of intensity, of Time: conjuring past, present and future in a single image.3 We, the viewer, bring our own associations to the image, our knowledge of drought in this big land – the knowledge that this drought has happened, it did happen and it will happen again and again and again in the future, probably with more frequency than it does now. The photograph becomes an active, mental representation of the material world. It becomes the world’s ‘essence’.

The photographs stand for something else, some other state of being, much as this work can be seen as one small aspect of Nolan’s art that stands for the whole – a close examination of a small part of something that represents the whole, like a sail represents a yacht, a metonymic resonance. They tell us something through time, of life and death. As the great author W. G. Sebald eloquently observes in his quotation at the top of this posting these things outlast us – in our imagination.

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Many thankx to Ingrid Oosterhuis (General Manager Melbourne) for her help and to Australian Galleries for allowing me to publish the text and the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Sidney Nolan
‘Untitled (desiccated horse carcass sitting up)’
1952
archival inkjet print
23.0 cm x 23.0 cm

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Sidney Nolan
‘Untitled (calf carcass in tree)’
1952
archival inkjet print
23.0 cm x 23.0 cm

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“In 1952 Sidney Nolan was commissioned by the Brisbane newspaper The Courier Mail to travel through far northern Queensland to record his impressions of one of the worst droughts in Australia’s history. Throughout this journey Nolan took numerous black and white photographs using a medium format camera, resulting in a host of startling and memorable images. Focusing on both the macabre spectre of the many animal carcasses strewn across the landscape and on the singular dwellings announcing a tenuous human presence, Nolan created numerous iconic images.

Having returned to Australia after an extended period traveling in Europe, Nolan commented that the animal carcasses reminded him of the petrified bodies he had seen at Pompeii. Throughout the series emphasis shifts from detached observation to intimate contemplation – between the forces of the outer landscape to the darkness of the animals’ inner being. With their carefully composed compositions the photographs represent a dramatic shift from the artist’s earlier photographic experiments. In place of a prior spontaneity, drought-stricken animal carcases are framed in formally rigorous compositions, the moment seemingly trapped in time.

For the first time this exhibition includes the complete and unabridged series of Sidney Nolan’s Drought Photographs, including images previously unavailable for public exhibition.”

Damian Smith
Archivist for the Nolan Estate 1996-99

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Sidney Nolan
‘Untitled (camp bed)’
1952
archival inkjet print
23.0 cm x 23.0 cm

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Epic Drought in Australia

“Australia has not a very long history, but it is long enough to indicate that she must expect a major drought once every decade. Even so the present drought which the north and west of the continent is enduring, is by far the worst in living memory.

Rivers which have not been dry for over a century are now beds of hot sand, and even the aborigines can find no parallel in their mythology for a drought of this magnitude.

To cattle raising areas, failure of the annual monsoonal rains spells near tragedy. Of a total of 11.4 million beef cattle 1.5million have already perished.

The position is complicated by the lack of a railway connecting the North-centre of Australia with the eastern seaboard. Had such a railway been in existence many thousands of cattle could have been shifted to agistment areas and saved. As it is, the cattle must survive journeys from 500 to 1500 miles on stock routes, and this is generally impossible owing to the weakened positions of the animals. Thus cattle men must face the prospect of watching their herds dwindle until at least the end of the year when there is the probability of early summer storms bringing relief.

In the meantime the landscape presents scenes of desolation which mark the memory of all who see it. Thousands of carcasses are strewn on the baked and cracked plains. There is a brooding air of almost Biblical intensity over millions of acres which bear no trace of surface waters. The dry astringent air extracts every drop of moisture from the grass, leaving it so brittle that it breaks under foot with the tinkling of thin glass.

Death takes on a curiously abstract patter under these arid conditions. Carcasses of animals are preserved in strange shapes which have often a kind of beauty, or even grim elegance.

Over the whole country there is a silence in which men and animals bring forth the qualities necessary for survival. Patience, endurance – and for many Australians, a bitter and salty attitude of irony.”

Sidney Nolan, August 1952

Text from the Australian Galleries website

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Sidney Nolan
‘Untitled (cow in tree)’
1952
archival inkjet print
23.0 cm x 23.0 cm

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Sidney Nolan
‘Untitled (Brian the stockman mounting dead horse)’
1952
archival inkjet print
23.0 cm x 23.0 cm

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“Australian Galleries is delighted to present this fascinating exhibition of selected photographs by Sidney Nolan curated by Damian Smith, Archivist for the Nolan Estate 1996-99.

Smith states in the accompanying exhibition catalogue:

“In 1952 Sidney Nolan was commissioned by the Brisbane newspaper The Courier Mail to travel through far northern Queensland to record his impressions of one of the worst droughts in Australia’s history. Throughout this journey Nolan took numerous black and white photographs using a medium format camera, resulting in a host of startling and memorable images. Focusing on both the macabre spectre of the many animal carcasses strewn across the landscape and on the singular dwellings announcing a tenuous human presence, Nolan created numerous iconic images. This exhibition includes the complete and unabridged series of Sidney Nolan’s Drought Photographs, including images previously unavailable for public exhibition.”

In his 1952 essay Epic Drought in Australia Sidney Nolan remarked on the poignancy of the images, noting the following:

“Death takes on a curiously abstract patter under these arid conditions. Carcasses of animals are preserved in strange shapes which have often a kind of beauty, or even grim elegance.”

To coincide with the exhibition Drought Photographs, Australian Galleries will be showing a selection of Drought Drawings by Sidney Nolan that include works previously exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria, in it’s landmark survey of Nolan’s work Desert Drought in 2003.”

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Sidney Nolan Drought Photographs Curated by Damian Smith

“In 2010 Damian Smith established Words For Art, a consultancy specialising in art writing and curatorial projects.

Damian has always had a strong interest in Nolan’s work, he was appointed the inaugural archivist for the estate of Sidney Nolan in 1996. Since that time he has curated numerous Nolan exhibitions including a major exhibition, Unmasked: Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly 1950-1990 for the Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2006.

Building up to the Heide exhibition, Damian was based at Sidney Nolan’s home ‘The Rodd’ at Herefordshire, a 16th Century manor on the border of England and Wales. During that research period he developed an interest in Nolan’s life-long engagement with photography. He discovered vintage prints of Nolan’s photographs of outback Australia and the devastating drought in far northern Queensland, which were included in the landmark survey Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought, at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003. The exhibition included previously unseen photographic images from 1949 to 1952.

In the NGV exhibition, numerous small-scale contact prints showing Nolan’s ‘Drought animals’ were featured, as were larger black and white prints from the same series. Additional small-scale prints were sourced as well through Nolan’s step-daughter Jinx Nolan. Of note was Nolan’s now famous Untitled (Brian the stockman mounting a dead horse at Wave Hill Station), 1952, a startling image that first featured in the 1961 Thames & Hudson monograph Sidney Nolan, where it appeared titled Desert.

Having researched and written about these images, Damian recognised that Nolan had spent many hours studying the images, notating them and ultimately using them in the development of his now famous Drought paintings. Nolan offered the photographs to Life Magazine, New York in a bid to bring this extraordinary series to public attention. This bid was unsuccessful.

After all of the years since these photographs were taken, Damian made the decision to resurrect Nolan’s photographs working closely with Sidney Nolan’s widow Mary Nolan, nee Boyd. The result being this exhibition at Australian Galleries, Melbourne in 2011.

Keen to preserve the artist’s vision, the photographs have been produced to a scale consistent with the vintage prints and all are printed from the original negatives which were discovered at ‘The Rodd’.”

Text from Australian Galleries Melbourne

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Sidney Nolan
‘Untitled (cow carcass and cow skull)’
1952
archival inkjet print
23.0 cm x 23.0 cm

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Sidney Nolan
‘Untitled (cow and calf carcass covered in dirt I)’
1952
archival inkjet print
23.0 cm x 23.0 cm

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1. Batchen, Geoffrey. “Palinode: An Introduction to Photography Degree Zero,” in Batchen, Geoffrey (ed.,). Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, p.6.

2. Ibid., pp.8-9.

3. Ibid., p.13.

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Australian Galleries Smith Street
50 Smith Street, Collingwood VIC 3066

Opening hours:
Monday – Saturday 10am – 6pm
Sunday 12 noon – 5pm

Australian Galleries website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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