As an artist, Sidney Nolan has helped shape Australian consciousness through his imagery, from his stylized portraits of Ned Kelly to his bush landscapes. Few know, however, that in late 1961 Nolan was commissioned as an artist to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann was a key architect in the design and implementation of the “Final Solution,” which streamlined the transportation and industrial extermination of Jews and other minorities through camps like Auschwitz.
After the war he fled to Argentina under a false name. His identity was revealed in 1960, leading to his trial (April 11 to August 15, 1961). The world went electrified as they watched the trial on TV.
Nolan was among them. At the time he was living in London, but little did he know the impact accepting this commission would have on him.
A new exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum (SJM) unveils this hidden chapter in his career – a powerful six weeks with a few hundred drawings.
Shaken to the Core: The Untold Story of Nolan’s Auschwitz includes 50 of these Auschwitz artworks that have never before been seen or presented to the public in Australia.
The exhibition also marks the unveiling of a new gallery space being developed in the basement of SJM’s iconic Darlinghurst building.
An electrifying moment
Television played a key role in the Eichmann trial, with viewers watching Eichmann disguised as a bureaucrat and positing his role as merely an administrator. These are the first images encountered by visitors to the exhibition – a series of portraits showing Eichmann’s distinctive glasses, quickly brushed and full of powerful energy and emotion.
While Nolan had painted pictures of concentration camps as early as 1939, for him a “reality” entered this story almost two decades later. He traveled to Poland with London observer newspaper to illustrate an article about the process.
Over two weeks (November 27 – December 10, 1961) Nolan filled dozens of sheets with pictures of Eichmann.
Shannon Biederman, curator of the Sydney Jewish Museum, told ArtsHub: “The trial brings the Holocaust front and center for a lot of people – it was compelling – and this exhibition really brings out Nolan’s deep concern for humanity… and you can really appreciate what that time was like really shaped his later work.”
This exhibition has been in the works for years and came to the museum via resident historian Professor Konrad Kwiet and curator Andrew Turley, who have long researched this chapter of Nolan’s career.
Biederman continued, “We don’t do a lot of art here, so it’s very emotional because it has the power to convey those feelings… One of the things we want to do is convey not only history but also convey meaning, and we do too are very happy to have this exhibition.’
The new showrooms are perfect for this clean and intimate engagement.
“Most of these drawings were made while listening to Shostakovich’s Op. 107 Cello Concerto,” Nolan wrote on the back of a January 7, 1962 painting of Auschwitz.
The composition is played in the exhibition space. However, after returning to London, Biederman said Nolan was unable to listen to music for months as it was too painful a trigger for his recent experiences.
The role of art in museums
The exhibition is divided into three chapters: the portraits of Eichmann in court; pictures of the victims painted immediately after Eichmann was sentenced to death; and then a series of abstract studies, works that might be called impressive evidence of the Holocaust.
In total, they only depict six weeks into Nolan’s life.
“You have to understand the context,” Biederman said. “Nolan really struggled with that; it was really an affront to his faith and belief in humanity.’
But this is not an exhibition about religion; This is an exhibition about humanity, and in that it bridges the gap to a broader history than some might expect from the SJM.
“Art plays such an important role; History is really important to understanding who we are, but emotions can emerge in art and it’s amazing to have an outstanding Australian artist exploring those ideas,” Biederman told ArtsHub.
Nolan painted over 120 victims from December 16–29, gradually becoming more emotionally expressionistic. Audiences can see this shift in tone and witness an artist consumed by overwhelming emotion and conflict across a grouping of 24 images.
‘Andrew [Turley] found he was painting one about every 15 minutes; It’s a wild burst of emotion, and for Nolan, this idea of going fast was about bringing that emotion into the work,” Biederman explained.
However, the works that follow – another 90 images taken in early January just before his visit to Auschwitz – turn to the crucifix (Christian iconography) to try to make sense of this suffering.
Wheelbarrows laden with corpses hang next to a smoking crucifix (aka chimney) or are topped with skeletons.
Biederman said Nolan was “trying to figure out the language; He says: “How can you paint an illness?” … He saw the iconography of the crucifix as a way to understand this suffering, to understand the connection between the faiths.”
Roslyn Sugarman, Chief Curator, Sydney Jewish Museum added: “This is a visceral and emotional exhibition that offers an inimitable look at history and takes us beyond historical fact. It fills the gap that imagination cannot reach.’
It’s not surprising that Nolan withdrew the work and failed to complete the commission, instead putting the work in storage for nearly four decades. This is a milestone to share this moment in Australian art history now.
The exhibition Shaken to the Core: The Untold Story of Nolan’s Auschwitz will be on display at the Sydney Jewish Museum from 21 July to 23 October 2022.