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Mortal Heroes: Homeric Themes and Classical Allusions in Sidney Nolan’s ‘Gallipoli Series’

Sarah Midford

On the 25th April 1915 soldiers from Australia and New Zealand (Anzacs) landed at Gallipoli and this landscape, just across the Dardanelles from the mythological site of the Trojan War, came to occupy the collective Australian imagination as a mythological place of national origin. When talking about his ‘Gallipoli Series’ in 1978, the Australian artist Sidney Nolan said that ‘there is a kind of grandeur … natural about Homer one can feel is related to Anzac’ (Page-Nolan interview, 1978: 5). The ‘Gallipoli Series’, painted between 1955 and 1975, connects the Australian war experience to the mythological Trojan landscape and explores the concept of war and its human consequences.  The central contention of this paper is that Nolan integrated classical aesthetics, his understanding of Homer’s Iliad and his personal experience of war in an attempt to understand the war’s consequence for the individual. 

Nolan was not classically educated and, although much of the commemoration of the Great War in Australia may have been classicizing, Nolan did not make the connection between the Troy and Gallipoli until he moved to the Greek island of Hydra in 1955. While he was in Greece Nolan integrated this connection between Anzac soldiers and the heroes of the Trojan with his personal understanding of his brother’s death, which formed his personal experience of the grief caused by war. Nolan uses the geographical proximity between the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Trojan plains to create an imaginary landscape where both conflicts coexist. This follows Gilles Deleuze’s contention that the past and the present coincide in the same moment (Deleuze, 1966: 59).  Nolan expresses Deleuze’s premise in the diptych ‘Gallipoli’ (1963) which depicts Gallipoli as a landscape pregnant with the past. In the diptych, Nolan melds multiple images from myth and history, separated by time and geographical space, to create a space where mythical and historical memories come together and interact with each other.  The Hellenistic Laocoön sculpture (25 BCE, Vatican Museum) is alluded to in this painting, and it serves as a parallel to Nolan’s father and brother who are both depicted. Nolan links his diptych to the sculpture through the fathers’ shared loss and grief for their sons. The way in which he presents the Australian and Trojan experiences of war as shared is indicative of Nolan’s use of Homeric epic to understand the Australian war experience.

The personal loss of the artist’s brother and his interest in grief and loss will be further explored by an examination of the painting ‘Landscape with recumbent Greek figure’ (1956). This painting makes aesthetic allusions between Greek statuary and Nolan’s drowned brother. It criticises the tendency to glorify war in ‘high art’ and manipulates the statue to highlight war’s grotesque reality. Nolan’s use of classical imagery is often a feature of ‘Gallipoli Series’ exhibitions. The Australian 2010-2012 travelling exhibition entitled ‘The Gallipoli Series’ draws clear aesthetic connections between Nolan’s paintings and Greek art. The exhibition compares the paintings ‘Gallipoli figures in battle I’ (1962) and ‘Gallipoli figures in battle amid shell-fire’ (1962) to images depicted on the Kittos amphora (c. 367-6 BCE, British Museum) and suggests that Nolan used these aesthetic parallels to capture the intensity and individualism evident in the moment of death depicted. Although exhibitions of the ‘Gallipoli Series’ recognise Nolan’s use of classical imagery, the exploration of the connection between the series and classical art remains a gap in academic scholarship. This paper aims to fill this gap and contends that classical allusions are used by Nolan to highlight both the human consequences of the Gallipoli campaign and the devastating costs of war more generally.

This paper concludes that Nolan used classical painting and sculpture, the human dimension of war elucidated in Homer’s Iliad together with his understanding of the Gallipoli Campaign as the greatest conflict in the artist’s living memory, to reconcile the loss of his brother with universal conceptions of war, loss and grief.

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