#Nolan 100

No.20 Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse - Damian Smith


No.20 Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse - Damian Smith

In 1952 Australian artist Sidney Nolan was commissioned by the Queensland-based newspaper The Brisbane Courier Mail to travel through rural Queensland and the Northern Territory to record a drought that was rated as the worst on record.

For the farmers located there a major challenge where cattle management was concerned was the basic lack of rail infrastructure. When the cattle were healthy teams of stockman, known locally as ‘jackeroos’, would heard their animals along stock routes thousands of miles long.  In the case of severe drought however, the animals were effectively stranded. In that year some 250,000 perished, baked to the point of mummification in the unforgiving heat.

Studying Nolan’s artworks prior to 1952 it is hard to imagine that this lyrical Australian Modernist would produce not only paintings and drawings, but also a series of near forensic photographs that recorded those desperate scenes. The harshness of the Australian ‘outback’ in its unforgiving space, heat and remoteness appear in each successive scene. Desiccated carcasses, some doubly cursed for they are stuck in trees after drowning but one season prior, leer like medieval gargoyles where others fall supine akin to the mummified animals of Pompeii. Critics at the time even drew comparison between Nolan’s drought paintings and the death piles seen at Auschwitz, perceiving metaphors of human behavior at its worst.

Within the sixty-one medium format photographs taken by Nolan one in particular stands out – ‘Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Station Mounting a Dead Horse’. As the title suggests the solitary stockman can be seen preparing to mount a mummified horse carcass. There is no doubting that it is indeed deceased. The cadaver’s empty eye sockets are no less galvanizing than the gaping and exposed rib cage that faces the startled viewer. In contrast the hind leg, kicked back in rigor mortis, appears to suggest forward motion. It is a picture of action.

Compositionally the photograph is tightly arranged; a slight vignetting of the camera lens causes the outer edges of the composition to darken, thus focusing the viewer’s attention. The rider’s leg runs at a parallel to the horse’s own front trotter. Bones are scattered on the endless plain that surrounds them, the infinite horizon creating negative shapes beneath the equine belly. Reflecting on this moment, Nolan stated, “Death takes on a curiously abstract patter under these arid conditions. Carcasses of animals are preserved in strange shapes which have often a kind of beauty, or even grim elegance.”

But one really has to laugh! ‘Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Station Mounting a Dead Horse’ is a visual example of Australian gallows humour – an antipodean ‘rider of the apocalypse’ off to reap its deadly bounty. Equally however, there is a grim fascination with the conditions that caused this rotting beast to remain in tact to the point where it could be saddled and potentially mounted. In conversation with an old ‘bush cocky’ as the inhabitants of remote Australia are called in a vernacular that is fast dying out, I learn that the eyes of the horse would have been pecked from its skull by crows when the animal lay dying. And extreme heat would cause sufficient contraction of the hide to keep the bodily form intact.

At the time when the photograph was taken Nolan could not have known that Wave Hill Station would later become the site of the famous Gurindji Strike of 1966 when 200 Aboriginal stockman, led by Vincent Lingari, ‘walked off’ the station in protest of their brutal living conditions. In ‘Brian the Stockman’ we see the first representation of those challenging environs and the toughness of the Australian Aboriginal worker.

Clearly the photograph has significance as a masterpiece of mid-20th Century photography. In the context of Australian art history it is also the earliest example of an artwork that combines site-specific installation and performance to camera. It marks Nolan not only as a Modernist but also as a distinct precursor to the art practices one associates with post-Modernity. Of all of Nolan’s vast outpouring, this photograph remains, in my mind, a work of originality, inventiveness, forward thinking and compositional panache. It is as artworks should be, utterly of its time and utterly timeless."

Damian Smith is a curator and academic based at the Centre for Art, Society and Transformation (CAST) RMIT University, Melbourne. He is currently curating a major project for the 2018 Bienal de la Habana, Cuba. In another life he was the inaugural archivist for Sidney Nolan’s estate.

Sidney Nolan, Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse, 1952, Geletin Silver Photograph, 15.2 x 15.6 (image) 16.5 x 16.9 cm (sheet), © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust

No.1 - Four Abstracts - Alexander Downer

No.2 - Self Portrait - Angus Trumble

No.3 - Arabian Tree - Kendrah Morgan

No.4 Riverbend I - Francine Stock

No.5 - Desert - Andrew Logan

No.6 Dog and Duck - Jane Clark

No.7 Vivisector - Tim Abdallah

No.8 In the Cave - Rebecca Daniels

No.9 Young Soldier - Clare Woods

No.10 Ned Kelly - Shaun Gladwell

No.11 Bird - Deborah Ely

No. 12 Hare in Trap - Nicholas Usherwood

No.13 Untitled (Catani Arch, St Kilda) - David Rainey

No.14 Death of a Poet - Simon Martin

No.15 Study for Samson et Dalila - Elijah Moshinsky

No.16 Rimbaud at Harar - Edmund Capon AM OBE

No.17 Quilting the Armour - Jackie Haliday

No.18 Snake - David Walsh

No.19 Angel and the Tree - Dr Nicky McWilliam

No.20 Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse - Damian Smith

No.21 Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl -Jennifer Higgie

No.22 Women and Billabong - Anthony Plant

No.23 Agricultural Hotel - Philip Mead

No.24 Policeman in a Wombat Hole - Kay Whitney

No.25 Peter Grimes - David Lipsey

No.26 Self Portrait in Youth - Barry Pearce & Duncan Fallowell

No.27 Riverbend I - Ian Dungavell

No.28 Drowned Soldier at Anzac as Icarus - Paul Gough

No.29 Thames - John Tooley

No.30 Girl - Amelda Langslow

No.31 Ned Kelly and Policeman - Daniel Crawshaw

No.32 Tarred and Feathered - Nick Cave

No.33 Self Portrait - Denise Mimmocchi

No.34 Peter Grimes's Apprentice - George Vass

No.35 The Emu Hunt - Roger Law

No.36 Luna Park - Paula Dredge

No.37 Rose in Coffee Pot - Anthony Collier

No.38 The Cardplayers - Nevin Jayawardena

No.39 Bathers - Lesley Harding

No.40 Aboriginal Girl - Jennie Milne

No.41 Pretty Polly Mine - Michael Brand

No 42. Roses in a Merric Boyd Vase - Jack Galloway

No 43. Brett Whiteley - Jonathan Watkins

No 44. Island - Nick Yelverton

No 45. Luna Park - Bill Granger

No 46. Face of the Damned - Kate McMillan

No 47. Central Australia - Leanne Santoro

No 48. Crane - Brian Adams

No 49. Myself - Simon Mundy

No 50. Going to Work, Rising Sun Hotel, 1948 - David Ferry

No 51. Figure at Harar - Andrew Turley

No 52, Greek Figures - Simon Pierse

No 53. Randolph Stow - Suzanne Falkiner

No 54. Landscape No.27 (Convalescence) - Suzanne Falkiner

No 55. Self portrait - Oliver McCall

No 56. McMurdo Sound - Mike Clements

No 57. Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse - Mark Fraser

No 58. Season in Hell (Benjamin Britten) - Anne Bean

No 59. The Slip - Humphrey Ocean

No 60. Central Australia - Chris Drury

No 61. Riverbend - Christina Slade

No 62. Head - Celia Johnson

No 63. Myth Rider - Desmond Browne

No 64. Stockman - Bridget McDonnell

No 65. Untitled (flower) - Roma Piotrowska

No 66. Chinese Landscape - Celia Perceval

No 67. Untitled - Des Hughes

No 68. Crucifixion - Rod Bugg

No 69. Icebergs - Laurence Hall

No 70. Bather in a Lily Pool - Amanda Fitzwilliams

No 71. Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head - Michael Berkeley

No 72. Carcase in Swamp - Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

No 73. Ern Malley - Isabella Boorman

No 74. Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan - Adrian Kelly

No 75. Landscape Carnarvon Range, Queensland - Catherine Noske

No 76. Abraham and Isaac - Sarah Bardwell

No 77. Rosa Mutabilis - Catherine Hunter

No 78. Artist drawing nude - Victoria Lynn

No 79. Boy and the moon - Natalie Wilson

NO 80. Explorer and Township - Helen Idle

No 81. All Tastes Like Dust in the Mouth... - Carolyn Leder

No 82. Young Boy Who Was Good at Latin - Roxy Shaw

No 83. Mrs Fraser - Anne Carter

No 84. Paradise Garden - David Oliver

No 85. Leda and the Swan - Marilyn Sweet

No 86. Burke and Wills at the Gulf - Jenny Watson

No 87. Dream of the latrine sitter - Ryan Johnston

No 88. Footballer - Gerard Vaughan

NO 89. Sketch for Ned Kelly - Amanda Fuller

NO 90. Woman in Lagoon - Jinx Nolan

No 91. Cherries in a bowl - Peter Blake

No 92. Fountain - Heywood Hill

No 93. Artist and painting - Charles Nodrum

No 94. Death of Constable Scanlon - Anita Taylor

No 95. Untitled (abstract) - David Jaffe

No 96. Digital image - Joe Studholme

No 97. Seated figure and bird - Sally Aitken

No 98. Burke and Wills expedition 'Gray sick' - Gary Sangster

No 99. Kangaroo at Ayers Rock - Pru and Anthony Napolitano

No 100. The Galaxy - Elizabeth Langslow