#Nolan 100

No.3 - Arabian Tree - Kendrah Morgan


No.3 - Arabian Tree - Kendrah Morgan

"A highlight of the Heide Museum of Modern Art collection, Sidney Nolan's enigmatic and lyrical painting Arabian Tree is one of the artist's early masterpieces.

In composition and mood it echoes Marc Chagall’s Lovers Among Lilacs (1930, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), reproduced in Herbert Read’s important text Art Now, (1933), with which Nolan was familiar. A similarly dreamlike image, Nolan’s picture is redolent with allusions to his ill-fated romance with Melbourne art benefactor Sunday Reed, then at its height. The work is also significant for its connection to a famous literary hoax and it therefore occupies a fascinating place in Australian cultural history.

Nolan painted Arabian Tree during his involvement with the progressive Melbourne publishing firm Reed & Harris, which produced the radical cultural journal Angry Penguins in the early 1940s. The picture was intended specifically for the cover of a special edition of Angry Penguins dedicated to the poetry of Ern Malley - a mysterious figure later revealed as a fictitious character invented by two young Sydney poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. McAuley and Stewart sent the fake Malley poems to Max Harris, Angry Penguins’ co-editor, in October 1943. Convinced that Malley was a major talent, Harris and John Reed - Sunday’ husband - published the verses in May 1944, after which the hoax was exposed. McAuley and Stewart, who claimed concern for the destruction of craftsmanship and value of meaning in avant-garde poetry, achieved their aim of discrediting Reed & Harris and the modernist art and literature the firm promoted.

The hoaxers had composed the Malley poems using randomly selected quotes from the works of literary giants such as Shakespeare and Mallarmé, as well as a rhyming dictionary, army manuals, their own writings, and various other low brow sources. Nonetheless the verses contained some fine rhyming structure and beautiful imagery. Nolan found them a powerful source of inspiration and for Arabian Tree he drew from the poem ‘Petit Testament’, inscribing the work with the following lines:

I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree

The painting depicts an idealised realm in which the lovers are suspended forever in the lush green foliage of the solitary tree, shielded from external reality. The setting is the Wimmera region in north-east Victoria where Nolan was stationed in the army from 1942–44 and includes the distinctive form of Mitre Rock near Mt Arapiles in the background. Although Arabian Tree will be forever linked with the Ern Malley hoax and the downfall of Angry Penguins, it also remains a personal letter of romantic longing - an evocation of lovers transcending earthly constraints to unite in a private paradise."

Kendrah Morgan is Curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. 

Sidney Nolan, Arabian tree 1943, enamel on plywood, 91.8 x 61 cm, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, Bequest of John and Sunday Reed 1982

 © Sidney Nolan Trust

Kendrah Morgan and fellow Heide curator Lesley Harding at The Rodd in 2012

Kendrah Morgan and fellow Heide curator Lesley Harding at The Rodd in 2012

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