An interesting afternoon spent mainly in front of Sydney Nolan’s Burke 1964 – starting with a visit from an old actor friend of mine, John Bolger.
We looked at the Nolan and he commented on: nakedness and vulnerability, the sense of being lost, sense of an aboriginal figure almost. I saw an interesting contrast between sharpness and blurred outlines and various other pictorial elements, too numerous to go into here.
Then I wrote: “The background is more than background, it is integral to the story. There is a narrative here. The face is detailed enough to attract our interest (too anonymous and the viewer turns off).”
I wrote a lot of notes on the colours used – ochres, blues, yellows, red.
Sidney Nolan, Burke, 1964, enamel on composition board, 128.5 x 128.5 cm
Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat, Gift of Reginald and Laura Gregory, 1978
A lady joined me and pointed out the blood-red colour on the camel’s neck and in the water. She knew the story very well and had been to the DIG tree, her husband (who joined us later) being something of an expert on the whole Burke and Wills story. Their comments were valuable and interesting.
The painting insists that you be involved in the story – I found myself reasoning that it depicts a point in time when Burke has turned around (the horizon suggests that we are looking west, so Burke is heading south again on his way to die at Cooper’s Creek).
Burke’s stance is slightly effete – hand on hip – Europeanised. He is ironically naked and completely without all the ‘civilised’ accoutrements he set out with. He seems to have given up looking for help – ironically help was nearby if he had realized that the aborigines knew how to survive in this country and that Cooper’s Creek itself was full of fish.
You see how it is – we have turned the painting (which is one of a series on Burke and Wills) into a story, about which we already know most of the details.
The artist, in this sort of painting, selects a pivotal moment in a well-known, or clearly visible, story and presented it as representative of the whole narrative.
There are various other narrative paintings in this gallery; David Davies’ Under the burden of the heat of the day is more than a landscape with figures, it tells of the hardship of the life of itinerant workers in the bush; Tom Roberts’ Wood splitters also tells of a way of life; in another part of the gallery, look for 19th century historical paintings, or even the portraits of mayors and politicians tell a story, as does Noel Counihan’s On the steps of parliament house recently featured in an article in The Australian newspaper.
But, back to Nolan; I spent the next week researching, finding, for instance that the artist himself disagreed with my take on Burke, who I saw as a rather silly example of European arrogance – Nolan wrote that he regarded Burke as heroic. He sees fortitude where I see arrogance.
In my poem below, I stick to my own reading of the painting. Here’s the poem as it stands at the moment – after all that work, it’s a short poem (maybe there’s a ballad to come?):
Nolan’s BURKE (1964)
Burke lost, going nowhere now,
going in his nakedness to die,
his camel half submerged
blue water spoiled with blood
on either side rich browns
and strident yellows, while Robert
O’Hara Burke, laid back and loose,
hand on hip, glancing up
and away from it all, affects
the nonchalance expected of the white man.
I do welcome comment, either on this blog or when I am at the Gallery on Wednesday afternoons.
Cheers - Barry Breen