‘What would you have me do? Go to the wars?’ Sidney Nolan’s soldier

Sidney Nolan was one of the most prolific Australian artists of the twentieth century, completing an estimated forty thousand works of art.

He was a central figure in the Australian Art Bubble in London in the 1950s and 1960s, largely promoted by the premier British art critic of the day, Sir Kenneth Clark, who had met him on a flying trip to Sydney and Melbourne in early 1949.

While researching Nolan’s wartime desertion from the Australian Army, I became intrigued to see a repetitiveness in his depiction of the figure of the Australian soldier – not least in the 252 paintings and drawings collectively known as the Gallipoli Series. Nolan presented the works in 1978 to the Australian War Memorial in memory of his younger brother Raymond, who had drowned at Cookstown while on active service.

This meme-like feature has apparently not been noticed before. I have traced it back to a drawing made by a psychotic patient and given to Nolan by the Melbourne psychiatrist Reg Ellery, who supported his application for release from the Army unit that was about to be sent north to face off the Japanese in New Guinea.

Sebastian Gurciullo writes in Ellery’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1996 that, as well as giving Sidney Nolan his diagnosis, the doctor

provided the artist (Sir) Sidney Nolan with examples of drawings by psychotic patients which influenced his work, in particular a series of ‘heads’ exhibited in 1943. Ellery used one of them on the cover of his book, Psychiatric Aspects of Modern Warfare (1945), published by John Reed and Max Harris.

This is the cover in question.

We shall see how this image was used repeatedly – some might say obsessively – by Nolan over the next five decades.

Ern Malley, Sid Nolan and Robin Murray

In the first week of June 1944, the Ern Malley poems in the new issue of the literary magazine Angry Penguins were arriving in bookshops even as they were being exposed as a hoax. The editors – Adelaide literary enfant terrible Max Harris and Melbourne lawyer John Reed – acknowledged that ‘much of the quality of this publication is due to the energies and creativity of Sidney Nolan, who is now a partner in Reed & Harris.’

That week, Nolan applied for a month’s leave from the army to work with Reed & Harris. Six weeks later, he was diagnosed as exhibiting a ‘psychopathic personality’ and granted a month’s leave. When the month was up, Nolan absconded from the Australian army, hiding in plain sight in Parkville under the name of Robin Murray with papers that John Reed had arranged for him (they can be viewed here).

It was the compassionate but controversial Melbourne psychiatrist Reg Ellery – something of an intellectual mentor to Sunday, John Reed and other denizens of their salon at Heide – who gave Nolan his diagnosis. Ellery’s Psychiatric Aspects of War (1945) was one of the first books published by Reed & Harris, and was advertised in the same issue as the Malley poems.

‘Psychopathic personality’ was a common diagnosis in the writings of military recruitment psychiatrists such as Ellery and his American colleague Hervey Cleckley in seeking to identify recruits who might be dysfunctional, perhaps even criminal, if recruited or conscripted into a wartime military force. It differs considerably from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which can be triggered in any individual following a traumatic experience.

Ellery wrote in his book:

It must not be thought that every psychopath is a criminal or that all are markedly antisocial. Some, while maintaining a precarious adjustment within a given environment, have made valuable contributions to art or science. Some have even made good soldiers. But the fact remains that for every one that may be valuable an [sic] hundred others are better out of the fighting services. They are the psychiatric pariahs – born to trouble in a world that know them not – often of fair countenance and pleasant bearing but with minds cast in the ungainly mould of misfortune.

This psychoneurosis in wartime is described as the likely reaction ‘to a threat against the instinct of self-preservation.’ Its physical symptoms can often include ‘stress dyspepsias’ such as peptic ulcer, which are listed on Nolan’s service record.

However, Brian Adams notes (based on his interviews with Nolan in 1985-6) that an army psychiatrist named Captain Brown added a cover letter to Ellery’s report. Nolan steamed it open. It read:

Corporal Nolan has an overwhelming ambition, such as I have rarely struck before, to avoid front-line duty. He is in my opinion physically and mentally equipped for combat duties.

Nolan deserted when his leave to work for Reed & Harris in the weeks after the publication of the Ern Malley issue ended, on 20 August 1944.

The Gallipoli and Ern Malley series

Before using it for the cover of Psychiatric Aspects of Modern Warfare, Nolan had used the image inspired by Ellery’s patient in his Head of Soldier (1942) now at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, after completing the Gallipoli series, Nolan painted Ern Malley as a soldier, although there is no reference to him being one in the backstory concocted by the hoaxers.

Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan. painted in London in 1973, gifted to Art Gallery of South Australia 1974.

Decades after absconding from the Australian army, Nolan still seemed compelled by the question asked in Malley’s poem ‘Boult to Marina’:

What would you have me do? Go to the wars? 

When he had exhibited scores of paintings of his Leda and Swan series in London in 1960, his fellow Australian artist Albert Tucker quipped: ‘I suppose it’s all right but how much would you sell the stencils for?’ The repeated use of the same template image of the soldier that Nolan had been given by Dr Ellery in the early 1940s seem as much of a stencil as his swans.

However, no-one seems to have called him out for the remarkable reliance on one image that was repurposed over and over in the decades since he first laid eyes on it.


Sue Rabbitt Roff

Sue Rabbitt Roff’s articles on twentieth century settler-colonial-imperial cultural transmissions have been published in Meanjin, Overland, The Independent, The Conversation, Pearls & Irritations and CNN. They are collated at www.rabbittreview.com where Part I of her revisionist history The Making of the British H bomb in Australia: from the Monte Bellos to the 1956 Olympics was published last month.

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