BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Sidney Nolan

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 01 MAR 11

In January 1963, the Australian painter Sidney Nolan travelled to Antarctica with the US Navy as part of a routine supply operation codenamed ‘Deep Freeze’. Returning to his London studio with rolls of film and sheaves of watercolour sketches (all since lost), in a few short weeks Nolan produced a series of some 60 paintings on hardboard and coated paper, depicting the territory’s landscape, its early explorers, and the scientists, pilots and servicemen that he met at its snow-blown research stations and military bases. Around half of these works were brought together for ‘Sidney Nolan: Antarctica’, an exhibition at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, an academic facility founded as the national memorial to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who famously perished alongside four companions during their bid to become the first human beings to reach the South Pole. Scott named this the ‘Terra Nova Mission’, adding another layer of grim irony to the fact that when he finally arrived at his destination on 17 January 1912, he found it marked by a black flag planted by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had set foot there some four weeks before the English team. Looking at Nolan’s paintings, it seemed as though he, like Amundsen, discovered a ‘new earth’ in Antarctica, and perhaps also felt the shadow of Scott’s death fall across its trackless wastes.
From the expedition photography of Ernest Shackleton to John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror movie The Thing (1982), most representations of the South Polar regions emphasize one thing above all else: their unrelenting whiteness. Nolan’s paintings do not deny this – how could they? – but rather understand the Antarctic ice as a surface on to which light falls and shatters, its broken waves taking on new and unexpected colours. In Antarctica, a work on paper from 1964, he picks out the left flanks of a range of dunes in a deep, fish-blood red (much glossier than its mammalian equivalent), as though some not-quite-human creature were stumbling, wounded, through the snows, whereas in another 1964 work of the same title on paper a grimy, paraffin-blue sky imprints itself on the cold ground, the horizon becoming the seam of a vast Rorschach print. This image is repeated in an ink and wax piece, sloshed across US Naval Antarctic Support stationery, in which printed images of penguins peek through Nolan’s washy landscape like eager busboys, while in Whale (1964) a vast black whale sinks beneath the waves, the yellow pigment on its glowing belly suggesting that it has swallowed the sun. Everywhere in these paintings there’s a sense, not of violence exactly, but of an indifference to human survival, and to human concerns. We are never quite sure what is sea, land or air. This is a world composed only of water and light, combining and recombining.
Given the date of Nolan’s paintings, it seems reasonable to wonder whether his images of Antarctica were somehow informed by another sally into an inhospitable zone – the 1960s space race. Wearing goggles and a scarlet parka, the portrait Scientist (1964) resembles a cosmonaut lost on a distant planet. Conversely, Explorer (Fergie) (1964) seems, with his sealskins, mad eyes and jagged, frozen beard, to be devolving into an apelike creature, so far away is he from civilization. If Nolan’s paintings are about death, it’s not only that of individuals such as Scott, but rather of the whole idea of the human subject. The painter said of Antarctica: ‘You know it was so remote, so big and in a way so beautiful that this swept over any fear that you had, and there was a kind of feeling in the back of my mind that if one had to die there, in one way it wouldn’t be so bad. It represented a stronger reality than one’s self.’ Perhaps this, in the end, was the thought that comforted the members of the Terra Nova Mission as they contemplated Amundsen’s black flag.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.