Dream of the latrine sitter, 1942
Sidney Nolan, Dream of the latrine sitter, 1942, oil on hard board, 45.5 x 122cm, Australian War Memorial © Sidney Nolan Trust.
Ryan Johnston is Head of Art at the Australian War Memorial.
"Dream of the latrine sitter was painted in December 1942 in Dimboola, Victoria, where Nolan was stationed with the Australian Army and tasked with the undistinguished role of maintaining food supplies. It depicts an unidentified soldier (who I, along with many others, like to think is Nolan), relieving himself on an outdoor toilet in the barren Wimmera landscape. The abject, excremental theme is echoed by both Nolan’s palette and technique, with the brown paint laid on so thin as to appear like a stain on the rough hardboard support.
While the subject of the latrine sitter’s eponymous dream is also unclear, it may well have been that of becoming an official war artist. The work was painted around the same time Nolan unsuccessfully approached the Australian War Memorial’s director, Major John Treloar, for a commission, and almost a year into John Reid’s epic letter writing campaign to lobby the Memorial to appoint more “modern” artists to the scheme. In an attempt to bolster his case for the latter Reid sent Treloar a copy of the catalogue to the Contemporary Art Society’s “Anti-Fascist Exhibition”, featuring Dream of the latrine sitter, shortly after it opened. It’s difficult to fathom why Reid thought bringing Nolan’s picture of a shitting soldier to Treloar’s attention might enhance his chances of a commission, and if anything it sealed his fate. Reid and Nolan’s subsequent entreaties were summarily dismissed.
Eighteen months after painting this picture Nolan deserted the army, a move that forced him into hiding and on to other artistic subject matter. Yet just over a decade later he would return to the theme of war with his sprawling Gallipoli series, ultimately consisting of hundreds of works spanning two decades of Nolan’s career. Yet while the Gallipoli pictures retained something of the murky palette and loose execution of Dream of the latrine sitter, they also at times mythologised the subject of war in a way the earlier, far more caustic work, pointedly refused.
If Nolan harboured a grudge against the Memorial for thwarting his dream of becoming a war artist this had dissipated by 1978 when, in a remarkable philanthropic act, he donated 252 works from the Gallipoli series to its collection. It remains among the most significant gifts in the institution’s history, and influenced how the Memorial would, from that point forward, increasingly emphasise the role of contemporary art in commemoration. In 2001, almost 60 years after its production, the present picture was finally acquired. The dream may therefore have remained as such, but Nolan’s point was made in the end."