"Greek Figures is a small work in oil on paper measuring 164 x 212 mm or 6 ½ x 8 ¼ inches approximately. It is one of six small paintings given by Sidney Nolan to Ann Forsdyke (1913-2007) who was assistant director at the Whitechapel Gallery and, in the late 1960s, Nolan’s assistant in London. Following her death in 2007, Forsdyke bequeathed her art collection to the Art Fund. This collection, with an estimated total value of over £500,000 and now known as the Ann Forsdyke Bequest, was distributed by the Art Fund to public galleries in Great Britain in 2010. Greek Figures is now in the School of Art Collection, Aberystwyth University. Signed by Nolan and dated 1954, it carries an additional personal inscription (recto, lower right) in Nolan’s hand: 'Greetings, Mrs. Forsdyke, London, June 1957’. A similar inscription in black crayon is repeated on the back of the painting.
The inscriptions to Ann Forsdyke were probably added at the time that Nolan’s solo exhibition was being held at the Whitechapel Gallery (June – July 1957). Most likely they acknowledge her assistance with the planning of that show which consolidated Nolan’s reputation in Britain.
The dimensions of Greek Figures and the medium, which is oil on paper, both support a date of 1954. Sidney and Cynthia Nolan spent around seven months on the Greek island of Hydra but did not arrive in Greece until late 1955 at the earliest. We must allow for the possibility of an incorrect date, but if the date of Greek Figures is correct, this would mean that it was painted before the Nolans had been there. A number of small oil sketches on paper dating between 1951-56 were exhibited at Nolan’s 1957 solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. They include a number of Italian and Greek subjects. Greek Figures is not one of those listed in the exhibition catalogue, although incidental correspondence in the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition file indicates that Nolan had a portfolio of additional work that may have been made available to buyers during the run of the exhibition. Of the studies on paper listed in the exhibition catalogue, the earliest one with an identifiably Greek title is Minotaur (1956), two years later than the date of Greek Figures.
In the catalogue introduction to the Whitechapel show, critic and author Colin McInnes wrote of Nolan’s recent attempts to conflate Greek myth with Modern Australia: ‘in Greece as it is and was, Nolan has found a familiar country, rich in myths, which pictorially, he is now trying to understand in order to create myths for his own people. The feeling of these Greek pictures is pre-classical, but the forms are those that he, like all European artists, has inherited from classical Greece: it is the mood of the one civilization, expressed in the forms of the other.’
Cynthia and Sidney Nolan went to Hydra in November 1955 to visit their Australian friends, the authors George Johnston (1912-1970) and Charmian Clift (1923-1969) who had left London with their children in late 1954, intending to write novels and live a more simple, Mediterranean way of life. Initially, Johnston and Clift had chosen the small remote island of Kalymnos, near the Turkish coast, but finding it too remote, they moved to Hydra in 1955. As the date would indicate that Greek Figures was painted in London, in the year of Johnston and Clift’s departure for Kalymnos, it therefore opens up the possibility that the painting was inspired by Nolan’s imagining of Johnston and Clift in their new life on the Greek island of Kalymnos, or, perhaps from one of the black and white photographs of Greece that George and Charmian had shared with Nolan.
Admittedly, the title is Greek Figures and not Figures in Greece. However, the high forehead and smiling face of the male figure, painted in deep accents of shadowy black, looks as if it might be derived from a photograph, while the female figure, tall and seen in profile, wears a long plait of hair extending below her shoulders. Casually posing, the man wears a singlet and might pass for a Greek peasant, but the woman, who is also sleeveless and wears a low-cut dress vaguely sketched in patches of translucent white, is definitely not Greek in appearance. Neither are they a credible depiction of god and goddess, or fauns or nymphs, or any of the other mythical themes that Nolan had started to explore in his Hydra studies of 1956 and which were mentioned by McInnes in his Whitechapel catalogue introduction.
On Hydra, Sidney and Cynthia moved into a cliff-top house overlooking the sea, an ancient house built by Albanian pirates, that belonged to the Greek painter Nikos ‘Ghika’ Hadzikiriakos. Cynthia and Charmian, who both wrote autobiographical novels, shared a ‘nervy’ friendship, while George and Sidney shared a Melbourne, working-class background. Nolan’s father was a tram driver, Johnston’s father had worked for the Tramways board. It was Johnston who gave Nolan a copy of Alan Moorehead’s article ‘Return to a legend’ to read which ‘unlocked a door’ to the beginning of ideas that would eventually find form in Nolan’s monumental Gallipoli series. But at the beginning Nolan was simply ‘searching new themes for his painting.’ George Johnston describes how the artist ‘had become quite obsessively immersed in our copies of Homer's Iliad and Robert Graves's Greek Mythology.’ ‘He wanted to paint Troy, he said, in its pitiless heroics, in the true brutality of its images, … to give the story back the savage, sweaty, cruel, dusty, unadorned human grandeur that Homer had sung.’
Both Cynthia and Sidney felt an affinity with the Greek people that was reassuring and strangely familiar. Nolan would later compare Bondi life-savers with the ‘poise and physical perfection’ of a Greek bronze figure: ‘pulling people out of the sea and performing what looks to be a strange archaic Greek rite.’ In the evenings, Johnston and Nolan would thrash out the possibilities of conflating Greek and Australian myth over a dinner of fish, fried potatoes, honey cakes, goats cheese, olives and wine, all served at the local taverna for about three shillings each. Johnston relates how, ‘when the retzina circled and wild winter buffeted at the shutters of the waterfront taverns, we would talk far into the small hours about this other myth of our own, so uniquely Australian and yet so close to that much more ancient myth of Homer's. Nolan's poetic imagination saw them as one, saw many things fused into a single poetic truth lying, as the true myth should, outside time.’
Yet, nourished by these and living in the very heartland of classical mythology, he still clung to his particular Australianism; he was able somehow to associate the great Trojan epic tragedy with drought paintings he had done, with an Australian background of parched earth, dust, prickly vegetation, death, heat, bones in the dry burning of the sun.
Back in London in 1957, others had begun to compare Greece and Australia. Sir Kenneth Clark, at a lecture at Australia House, provocatively pronounced that Australians were ‘strong, active, athletic, quarrelsome, dogmatic, lazy – all the qualities of the Greeks’. The Greek landscape was like Australia, he continued, describing the Island of Delos as ‘a very Australian place’ with ‘a real Australian light, and those white lions … stick up like white pillars - just like dead trees in the Australian landscape.’"