Cultural Flows: Sidney Nolan and the River.
Rob Maconachie

1. From The Shoalhaven to The Thames and back again  

I decided recently to move back to Sydney after six years in London. Looking back at Australia from where my not so distant ancestors had embarked in the 1840s has made me think afresh about the idea of home and what it means to "belong".  In Australia the idea of belonging is complex. Home to Indigenous Nations with a visual culture practiced continuously for 60,000 years, a former British colony, and now a society 230-years-young made up of the descendants of settler families and more recent migrants from across the globe, the concept of permanence in relation to non-indigenous belonging is problematic. Sidney Nolan considered himself an "Earthling" describing a more inclusive, fluid sense of home; water, and rivers in particular, became an important motif in his visualising of this idea.          

I grew up on the Shoalhaven River at Nowra on the South Coast of New South Wales. As a kid I spent a lot of time up the river at Burrier, near Yalwal, an old gold-mining town on the ancestral lands of the Wodi-Wodi People of the Yuin Nation where my grandparents' grandparents had tried and failed to dig up their fortune in the 1890s. A century later my Dad bought some land on the river there, opposite Earie Park, a bushland property purchased in 1983 by Sidney Nolan, who by then had been living in London painting images of a distant Australia for almost thirty years. During his yearly visits Nolan painted the river at Earie Park and at Bundanon, the adjoining property owned by his brother-in-law Arthur Boyd. As a sign of their deep affection for the Shoalhaven, Nolan and Boyd later gifted both properties to the Australian people as part of the Bundanon Trust.     

Nolan’s connection to the Shoalhaven is one of a number of visual and intellectual relationships with rivers which range from The Thames at Putney – to which he attributed the inspiration for his Leda and Swan paintings after watching his daughter swimming there – to The River Kuei in the Guangxi region of southern China which inspired a series of under-appreciated large-scale spray paintings. But three rivers in particular occupied Nolan’s thoughts for much of the last decade of his life: The Goulburn River at Shepparton; the so-described “impassive river" of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem The Drunken Boat; and The River Rhine, as it appears in Richard Wagner’s, The Ring Cycle.

2. Confluences: Koninner at Putney Bridge 

When I first moved to London from Australia in 2011 I stayed briefly at a friend’s flat in Putney overlooking the River Thames at the opposite end of Wandsworth Park from a house where Sidney Nolan had lived in the 1960s. Nolan moved to Britain permanently in 1953 and lived in the United Kingdom until he died in 1992; the vast majority of his work made not in Australia, but by thinking about Australia from the UK. He saw Uluru in the façade of the Houses of Parliament and the Goulburn River in the muddy tidal reaches of the Thames; the same waters that in the 1830s carried Australia-bound migrant sailing ships from the London Docks, down to Gravesend, through the Thames estuary and The Downs and out to sea.

Four years earlier, in 2007, I had assisted on an exhibition of Nolan’s work in Sydney which included, River Shooting, from the late Ned Kelly series, a painting of the death of Scanlon, the police Constable shot by Kelly at Stringybark Creek in 1878. Nolan painted it in this house on the Thames in 1964. The figure of Kelly is literally painted into the landscape here, his lower body starting to merge with the bush, the aperture of his mask filled with river water. It was made just prior to the great multi-panelled River Bend paintings which Nolan said were inspired by childhood memories of the Goulburn River at Shepparton in North-East Victoria – Yorta Yorta country.  

In the dialect spoken by the people of the Yorta Yorta Nation, the name for the Goulburn River is sometimes, Koninner, which means the country at the confluence of the Goulburn and Murray rivers; rivers which are at the heart of their belief system and have been part of their ancestral lands for millennia. In the Goulburn River Creation Story, as told by Dr Wayne Atkinson, an elder of the Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung Indigenous Nations:

Baiame created the river by sending his woman down from the high country with her yam stick to journey across the flat and waterless plain. Baiame then sent his giant snake along to watch over her. She walked for many weary miles, drawing a track in the sand with her stick, and behind her came the giant snake following in and out and all about, making the curves of the river bed with his body. Then Baiame spoke in a voice of thunder, from up high. Lightening flashed and rain fell, and water came flowing down the track made by the woman and the snake.. (1)

A similar image was the basis for Nolan's Snake 1970 a vast mural of 1620 individual panels now in the collection of the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. I get the feeling that if it was possible Nolan would have made Snake extend the entire circumference of the globe, connecting all peoples, all his fellow "Earthlings". It is a powerful statement about remembrance and inter-connectedness and reveals Nolan's deep concern for Aboriginal culture and histories, something which has been central to recent discussions of his work. Dr Kate McMillan's essay published in this issue of McPhee, reveals Nolan's early visual protest against Australia's destructive culture of forgetting, against the systematic coverup of Aboriginal massacres and against Aboriginal deaths in custody. Dr Rebecca Daniel's study of Nolan's use of Axel Poignant's 1952 photographs of Rom ceremony dancers taken at Nagalarramba on the mouth of the Liverpool River in the north coast of Arnhem Land also indicates a position of empathy; not an appropriation I feel, but a call for cultural flow, for meaningful connections between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Australia. 

At risk of oversimplification, there is analogous thinking to this sense of flow at the foundation of Aboriginal world views which are formed from a belief in the relatedness or connectedness of every living thing to every other living thing; a natural and endless free-flowing cycle. A cultural flow.

Cultural flows is an Aboriginal river management philosophy in which flood waters are viewed as essential to providing the necessary connectivity to sustain an ecosystem. Flowing right through the river system and beyond, cultural flows ensure continuation of the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social, and economic life of the Indigenous Nations within the system that the river nurtures. In her 2009 study of cultural flows, Jessica K. Weir quotes Yorta Yorta man Lee Joachim who "says that cultural flows will be different for each Indigenous nation and for individuals as well. Instead of just one understanding, the meaning of the cultural flow is particular to country and the people of that country."[2] For Lee cultural flows are:

"a full flood that maintains all of the area, and is not just limited to a roadside or to a levy bank. It is actually flowing right throughout the system and ensuring that life is continuing within the system that it is supposed to nurture."[3]

Echoing both the redemptive role of water and the practice of connective flow, the Yorta Yorta People sing “Narrwa bura fera”, a hymn adapted around 1886 from the African American spiritual, “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army”; the lyrics of which are based on an ancient Jewish song from 1446BC called the Song of the Sea, composed by Miriam, the older sister of the prophet Moses. The first verse – “Womeriga Moses nyinin wala/ wala yapunei yeiputj / narrwa bura Fera yumina / yala” – which describes the inherent power of water, translates as “When Moses struck the waters / the waters came together / and drowned old Pharaoh’s army / hallelujah!”. The people of the Yorta Yorta nation have suffered horrific cultural, spiritual, environmental and economic losses as a result of European invasion; their fight for land and water rights has been ongoing since colonisation. Originally written following the emancipation of the Jews in ancient Egypt, Narrwa Burra Ferra is sung as a celebration of defiance, hope, and freedom over oppression; its message stretches across time and space, flowing through multiple cultures and geographies.

3. "I shall tattoo myself"

Despite his "Britishness", the Goulburn River of the Yorta Yorta remained to Nolan an emotional and geographical homeland: it was where his grandfather made his home in 1890, where his father was raised, and where he spent childhood holidays. It is also an area associated with the Irish rebel, Ned Kelly, Nolan’s artistic alter ego. After he left Australia for England Nolan continued to paint this part of the river; one of his two famous multi-panelled paintings of it, Riverbend I, made in London in 1964-65, was dedicated to his father. It’s serpentine reaches are also there in Snake. But I think the most powerful example of Nolan's connection to water can be seen in the self-portrait, I Shall Tattoo Myself, in which he conflates ancient European and Australian Indigenous water-based spiritualities via Arthur Rimbaud's description of Viking tattoos in the poem, A Season in Hell. Nolan shows his face decorated with a series of spirals not dissimilar to the sign used by some Aboriginal groups to denote a waterhole or meeting place. The image suggests the deep conviction echoing in Rimbaud's lines:

my ancestors were Norsemen: they slashed their own bodies, drank their own blood. - I'll slash my body all over, I'll tattoo myself.

4. Truth to power

In 1939, two-hundred Aboriginal men, women and children of the Yorta Yorta Nation walked off the state-run Cummeragunja Mission in southern New South Wales demanding an end to the missions's custodial violence, inhumane conditions and alarmingly high death rate. Their decision was to abandon the mission and walk across the nearby Murray River into Victoria. The Cummeragunja protest action became a call for a royal commission. Its fundamental demand for equality had still not been achieved half a century later when a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was instigated in the 1980s. Nolan made a powerful series of spray paintings in this period, which, as I’m writing this, are being shown in a ground-breaking exhibition of Nolan’s spray-paintings at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, curated by Ikon's director Jonathan Watkins. These paintings respond boldly to the royal commission: one figure is caged in a cell, others are hanged. Bodies writhe and distort; another denoted only by a white outline. 

Spray-painted graffiti emerged in the 1970s as a voice which spoke truth to power. It was an expression of rebelliousness and disaffection against marginalising societies. It was portable, affordable and easy to use, making it the medium of choice for graffiti artists expressing their outrage with and within a failing and discriminatory system. Nolan used it to create images which present a fierce challenge to non-indigenous Australia's culture of forgetting and history of apathy towards the impact of colonial rule on First Nations peoples. These paintings are urgent protests; not only memorialising the ninety-nine deaths investigated by the royal commission, but insisting on an end to suffering, the cessation of racial inequality, and the permanent commemoration of all Indigenous Australians who by 1988 had lost their lives over the two hundred years since European invasion; the underground associations of spray paint lending an immediacy and rawness to Nolan's voice. 

5. Now I, a boat: Rimbaud's "impassive" river

Nolan spoke this voice of protest throughout his career and often via the words of Arthur Rimbaud, the radical nineteenth-century French poet for whom the river was a seminal image. Often discussed in relation to Nolan, Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat (1871), is an extended metaphor poem narrated by a boat which breaks free from its mooring restraints and travels down “impassive rivers”; the "furious lashings of their tides" pushing the boat towards “The Poem of the Sea.” The poem portrays water in three ways: as cleansing agent; as life source, and as a centre of regeneration; ending with the boat drifting in open water, washed clean and imagining how it might sink below the waves and become one with the sea. Nolan uses the image of water in similar ways in Illuminations, a series of spray paintings made in 1982: In, Incredible Floridas, a masked face looms over undulating waves; in Rimbaud and his brother in a boat as boys, the two figures are surrounded by the river which almost engulfs them; in The Drunken Boat, a little ghosted vessel rests on a becalmed violet-coloured sea, its mast flying a flag emblazoned with a translucent disembodied head. The transgressive associations of spray paint, and what Peter Haynes has described as its "haze-like affect and accompanying dissimulation of form”, provided Nolan with the means to visualise the veracity of Rimbaud’s rearrangement of the senses. [4] It held for Nolan the potential to liberate the image from traditional constraints; allowed him to speak truth to power. 

6. The rivers let me go where I wanted: The democratic equality of water 

Nolan had used an airbrush with ink in 1936 in a series of works on paper made in response to James Joyce’s, Ulysses. In Illustration for Ulysses (NGA), Nolan used black ink with an airbrush, masking the page with the fingers of his free hand to create an image which suggests the unformed potential of turbid primordial waters. This painting brings to mind the famous passage from Ulysses in which Joyce extols the virtues of water. In a continuous flowing litany he describes "its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator's projection: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe…” Water then, was important to Nolan. It is key not only to his Goulburn River paintings, but also to his St Kilda, Fraser Island, Leda, and Gallipoli series, as well as his late spray-painted abstracts. In the abstract, Untitled 1986, lengths of cloth used as stencils create overlapping patterns of black, blue, white and red; like the reflection of a flag, distorted and unrecognisable in constantly shifting waters. 

7. The hydrologic cycle: Wagner's Ring and cultural flows  

In relation to these late abstract spray paintings made some fifty years after Illustration for Ulysses, Nolan spoke of wanting to come full circle, to go back to the beginning and finish what he had started in the 1930s. What he had started, as Barry Pearce has explained it, was "a hallucinatory journey" inspired by Rimbaud's experimental synthesis of language with the corresponding systems of colour and music - a kind of synesthesia where sounds are seen and colours heard. [5] Nolan believed that all painters and poets aspire to music, since music has the most immediate affect on the sensations. As Barry Pearce has explained, Nolan's own experience of hearing Rimbaud’s Illuminations poems set to music by Benjamin Britten in 1947, "led him to combine Rimbaud’s vision of correspondences with his own intellectual life of painting, poetry, music, ballet, and opera", in a state described by Richard Wagner as Gesamkunstwerk; or, a total work of art. [6] 

Although previous discussions of his practice have established Rimbaud’s poetry at the core of Sidney Nolan's early vision, less emphasis has been given to his interest in Wagner. His dying wish was to design an Australian-themed production of The Ring Cycle, Wagner’s four-part masterpiece in which a river plays the pivotal role. Written between 1848 and 1874, the period in which gold was discovered in the Goulburn River, The Ring is cosmic in its reach. It begins with a prelude that evokes the very dawn of time followed by an epic conflict between love and power set in motion by Alberich, a thief  who steals the magical river-gold guarded by three water-nymphs. Alberich forges a magic ring from it giving him the power to enslave his minions to do his bidding. But the ring is stolen; first by the king of the gods and later by a succession of others. In a jealous rage, Alberich places a curse on it bringing death to anyone who wears it, forcing Brunnhilde's declaration, "Thou guilty ring! Ruining gold!"

Whilst Wagner was writing his Ring Cycle, gold was discovered in the Goulburn River, in or around 1854. The impact of the subsequent gold rush on Aboriginal people was catastrophic; in some areas it had the effect of genocide. Peoples dispossessed of their lands and waters were permanently displaced, mass clearing of trees and polluting sediment caused devastating damage to the cultural flows of the river. Likewise, Alberich's curse is only redeemed in the final act of The Ring once the gold is returned to the waters of the river. The Rhine, “violently swollen" overflows its banks and "rolls its waters” forward allowing the Rhinemaidens to swim in on the waves of the flood waters and reclaim the ring of gold, drowning its wearer as they draw him back with them into the deep. As the Yorta Yorta people sing in Narrwa bura fera, the waters come together to protect against the abuse of power. 

Unlike the waterhole
I am not constant. 
I am like that river water after the rain; 
emptying into the ocean, circulating on deep currents to the lands of my forefathers. 
And back again.



End notes:
1. Dr Atkinson is Yorta Yorta Senior Lecturer & Fellow School of Social & Political Science, University of Melbourne. His story is published with his permission and was originally published in Atkinson, W., ‘The schools of human experience’, in Perkins, R. and Langton, M. (eds) First Australians, Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press 2008, p.287.
2. Jessica K. Weir, "Cultural Flows in Murray River Country" in, Murray River Country: An Ecological Dialogue with Traditional Owners, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2009, p.119
3. ibid.
4. Hayes, P., Sidney Nolan: Illuminations, Canberra Museum & Gallery, 2012, p.8
5. For a discussion of Nolan's relationship to Rimbaud see, Barry Pearce, Sidney Nolan: with an introduction by Edmund Capon and contributions by Frances Lindsay and Lou Klepac, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007.
6. Barry Pearce, Sidney Nolan: with an introduction by Edmund Capon and contributions by Frances Lindsay and Lou Klepac, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007.


Rob Maconachie is an arts worker and co-editor of McPhee

Images courtesy of The Sidney Nolan Trust. 

Sidney Nolan,  I Shall Tattoo Myself,  1982 spray paint on canvas 182.7 x 159.5 cm ©the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan,
I Shall Tattoo Myself, 1982
spray paint on canvas
182.7 x 159.5 cm
©the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan  Illustration for Ulysses  1936 black ink and airbrush on paper  23.2 x 18.2 w cm National Gallery of Australia ©the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan
Illustration for Ulysses 1936
black ink and airbrush on paper
23.2 x 18.2 w cm
National Gallery of Australia
©the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan  The Drunken Boat  1982 Synthetic spray can paint on canvas 122 x 152.4 cm ACT Museums and Galleries ©the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan
The Drunken Boat 1982
Synthetic spray can paint on canvas
122 x 152.4 cm
ACT Museums and Galleries
©the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan Burned boat on bed of the Thames, 1967, National libraryof australia © Sidney Nolan Trust.

Sidney Nolan
Burned boat on bed of the Thames, 1967,
National libraryof australia
© Sidney Nolan Trust.

Sidney Nolan Untitled 1986, spray paint on canvas 183.5 x 161 cm ©the sidney nolan trust

Sidney Nolan
Untitled 1986,
spray paint on canvas
183.5 x 161 cm
©the sidney nolan trust

Patrick Corbally Stournton The Gold Sculptures of Sir Sidney Nolan., published c.2001 Image courtesy of Douglas Stuart Fine Books

Patrick Corbally Stournton
The Gold Sculptures of Sir Sidney Nolan., published c.2001
Image courtesy of Douglas Stuart Fine Books