For 61 years they have been filed away, hidden from the public, instead of starting the conversation Sidney Nolan had so wanted before recoiling from the horror of what he had painted.
Now a new exhibition of the world renowned artist’s Holocaust paintings is starting that overdue conversation.
Nolan’s Shaken To His Core at the Sydney Jewish Museum is allowing a new generation to understand the impact of the Holocaust, displaying 50 of the 200+ paintings he made in just six weeks in 1961 after covering the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
“When you think of Sidney Nolan, you think of the bushranger, the Ned Kelly series,” the museum’s marketing manager Louise Claridge told Central News. “You don’t think about these kinds of works, related to the Holocaust.
“We were historically really well-placed, to showcase these types of works.”
He (Nolan) really wanted his work to start a conversation.
The exhibition also describes how, according to the Sidney Nolan Trust, the artist was so shaken by the experience he couldn’t face the paintings being shown.
Nolan had watched the televised Eichmann trial and then made a trip to Auschwitz to do illustrations for The Observer newspaper in Britain, but was too disturbed to complete the commission.
As one of Australia’s most iconic artists, the opportunity to witness the Holocaust through his eyes is a rare one, especially as only 30 of the paintings have been previously shown, and only once in England last year.
“They were all in folders or in storage, never on display,” Claridge said.
“This is for an audience that may not be as aware of the Holocaust, to have a richer understanding.
“He really wanted his work to start a conversation.”
Out of more than 200 paintings made in 1961, this exhibit contains 50 of Nolan’s works depicting Adolf Eichmann during his trial, survivors, and their experiences surrounding death and loss.
“He was reading the transcripts, listening to the commentary… he was really trying to visualise what he’d seen and heard,” said Claridge.
“He was at the trial of Eichman. This trial was really the first time in history that so many survivors were able to give details… of the horror they’d gone through.”
Some of Nolan’s work depicts the suffering through a Christian lens, where chimneys and barbed wire become crucifixes.
“He utilised the symbol of Jesus and the suffering that Jesus went through… to kind of draw that connection, and articulate the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust,” Claridge said. “He was thinking, ‘how can I get the average person to understand what these people went through?’.”
Some pieces are mere outlines and shadows, while others are fully-formed paintings portraying tortured faces.
“You can feel the evil… and the suffering Nolan tried to depict,” Claridge added.
“Seeing these images close up, you can really feel the emotion.”
However, Nolan’s visit to Auschwitz for a commissioned piece put an end to his paintings, and he did not depict the subject again.
The paintings remained in the archive of the Sidney Nolan Trust until recently, which Claridge considers a tragedy.
“He felt very deeply and struggled to communicate effectively, that emotion.”
The exhibition is on at the Sydney Jewish Museum until October 23, 2022.
Main image by Emily Leventhal.