Island, 1947

Sidney Nolan, Island, 1947, 77 x 105 cm, Ripolin on hardboard, © Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust

Nick Yelverton is Assistant curator at Australian art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

"Sidney Nolan’s enigmatic Fraser Island series continues to unfurl and intrigue seventy years after it was painted in October 1947. Following the completion of his first Kelly series in mid-1947 Nolan ventured north to Queensland, seeking a break from Melbourne and new subjects to paint. After learning of Fraser Island at Heide, and reading about the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836 and the legend of Eliza Fraser and David Bracefell, Nolan decided to visit twice that year. Fraser Island made a significant impression on Nolan. He wrote to patron John Reed: “I doubt I have given a good picture really of the island, it has been more intense than I have written; the psyche of the place has bitten me deeply and I feel involved with it in a way that I cannot explain easily …”.

On his second trip, Nolan painted twelve works on Masonite probably procured from an abandoned army building and later received bad press for his perceived misuse of precious building resources following the war. Island, one of five known surviving works from the series, provides an insight into Fraser Island’s “psyche” which Nolan failed to describe in his letter to Reed but managed to channel into his existentialist imagery. Pictured is a lonely, naked man stood ominously in either a beach or creek on the island. According to Nolan, this figure was “modelled” on a forester named Norm who he had boarded with, however, this subject’s identity was never disclosed by the artist.

Appearing like a lost soul in a watery grave, we are led to believe that this fellow is a perished crew member aboard the Stirling Castle, or Bracefell still reeling from his alleged betrayal by Fraser, who reported the escaped convict to the authorities, even though he had rescued her in exchange for a pardon. Knowing Nolan’s penchant for drawing upon his own tumultuous personal circumstances in his work, this man could also be an allegoric depiction of his brother Raymond, who had drowned whilst serving in the navy at Cooktown in 1945, or even the artist. We will probably never know – and that is what makes this painting so alluring. Island is currently on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of a commemorative Nolan display celebrating what would have been his 100 birthday."

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