Sir Sidney Nolan is one of the greatest artists in Australia’s history, renowned worldwide for his depictions of the Australian bush and the mythology of the bushrangers, primarily Ned Kelly. Nolan’s paintings of the Holocaust are much lesser known, but with a new exhibition that opened this month at Sydney’s Jewish Museum, this haunting collection will be seen in Australia for the first time.
Shaken to his Core: The Untold Story of Nolan’s Auschwitz showcases fifty works by Sidney Nolan, including the dozen portraits of Adolf Eichmann painted during his televised trial in 1961. Following the conclusion of the trial, in which Eichmann was sentenced to death, Nolan painted a series of works depicting the prisoners of Auschwitz, featuring the infamous striped pyjamas, screaming faces, and an abundance of smoke. Skeletal figures, warped religious iconography, and undeniable inhumanity overtook Nolan’s artistry as he grappled with the reality of the concentration camps.
[Friend and writer] Al Alvarez … is going to Poland. We talk about concentration camps. If we could paint the subject it would be a duty to do so.
In January of 1962, Nolan travelled with friend and poetry editor for The Observer, Al Alvarez, to Auschwitz. Alvarez was writing a feature on the camp and Nolan agreed to illustrate it; what he experienced in the camp, however, resulted in a full retreat from any Holocaust depictions altogether. According to Alvarez, the tangible horrors of the camp – ‘mountains of human hair, suitcases, spectacles… great mounds of old shoes’ – affected Nolan less than the broader planning of the affair, whereby the orderliness and efficiency of the layout spoke volumes of the inhumanity that permeated the camp. Having refused to illustrate Alvarez’s article, Nolan never explicitly painted the camps again, but the imagery and grief of the Holocaust followed him throughout the rest of his career.
Nolan’s Auschwitz collection has never been seen in Australia before, with the Sydney Jewish Museum’s Shaken to his Core comprising a ground-breaking exhibition. Running from, July 21, until October 23, 2022, the exhibit is included in ticketed entry to the museum as a whole. Find out more on Sydney Jewish Museum’s website here.
All artworks © The Sidney Nolan Trust all rights reserved, DACS / Copyright Agency 2022
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