Arabian Tree, 1943

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

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

"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."

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