This month, the Sydney Jewish Museum will exhibit a collection of 50 Auschwitz works by the acclaimed Australian artist, Sir Sidney Nolan, that have never been seen before in Australia.
The series was painted with great intensity in late 1961, during the trial of the infamous Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, and as Nolan prepared to visit Auschwitz on an art commission.
Until recently, these paintings remained mostly hidden away, their stories untold for over half a century – yet they reveal a darker side of the late artist, who was best known for his depictions of the mythology of bush life in Australia, including his paintings of bushranger Ned Kelly.
Sydney Jewish Museum’s Head Curator, Roslyn Sugarman says “Nolan grappled to find a language to convey the horror and inhumanity of the Holocaust and wrestled to find meaning amongst the suffering. This is a visceral and emotional exhibition that puts an inimitable lens on history, drawing us beyond historical facts. It fills the gap that imagination cannot stretch to.”
“The Museum is uniquely placed to host this exhibition. Our expertise in giving history a voice provides an ideal platform to take this art, contextualise it within historical time and place, and engage audiences through powerful imagery.”
The untold story of Nolan’s Auschwitz
Nolan first painted images of concentration camps as early as 1939. Yet, his preoccupation with the camps was heightened in 1961, when he was invited to Poland by a journalist from London’s Observer newspaper to illustrate an article about Auschwitz.
In early 1962, Nolan arrived at the former death camp ready to paint. But the experience of being there – of seeing the crematoria, the mountains of shorn hair, discarded spectacles, suitcases and artificial limbs, and rows of bunks where prisoners slept – shook him so completely to his core that he decided never to paint on the subject of the Holocaust again.
Painting Adolf Eichmann
In the months leading up to his trip to Poland, Nolan grappled with how he might paint Auschwitz; agonising over whether the horrors of the Holocaust could ever truly be the subject of art.
Then in April of 1961, the Adolf Eichmann trial began. Nolan, like the rest of the world, was captivated by the global televised coverage of Eichmann, the man responsible for the ruthlessly efficient railway system that used cattle cars to transport Jewish people to their death. The trial reignited international awareness of Nazi atrocities and brought the voices of Holocaust survivors to the fore.
In the final weeks of the trial, between November 27 and December 10 or 1961, Nolan created about a dozen portraits of the war criminal – each with subtle variations on the last – some in simple outline and others fully formed. The images mirror the famous images of Eichmann sitting behind bulletproof glass.
In late 1961, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was sentenced to death. This gave Nolan the release he needed and the artist immediately switched focus from Eichmann to the faces of victims of the Holocaust. He painted Auschwitz prisoners screaming and shrouded in smoke, crucified on smoking crosses. He depicted some as skeletons, overflowing from wheelbarrows and some as bodies laid out in neat rows of death.
Sydney Jewish Museum CEO Kevin Sumption PSM says “The 50 paintings in this exhibition are selected from some of the last that Nolan ever painted on the subject of the Holocaust. Not only do they reveal a different side of one of Australia’s most celebrated artists – but they also offer an interpretation of history through a distinctively Australian perspective.”
“Hosting an exhibition this rare and groundbreaking is a testament to the Sydney Jewish Museum’s unique brand of storytelling – the kind that only comes from 30 years of holding the memories of Holocaust survivors and of preserving the voices of history.”