Sidney Nolan: Ancient Greece, War and the never changing realities of humanity

Fotis Kapetopoulos talks to Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider curator Anthony Fitzpatrick and artist Heather B. Swann on Troy, Gallipoli and the Leda and the Swan now showing the TaraWara Museum.

They sent forth men to battle, But no such men return; And home, to claim their welcome, Come ashes in an urn

In Aeschylus’, Agamemnon (Oresteia, #1)

Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider features over 100 works by Australia’s greatest modernist painter, from the period 1955–1966.  The works delve into Nolan’s exploration of Greek myths, reflections of his time in Greece and Homer’s Iliad and Leda and the Swan and the ANZAC Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

The exhibition’s curator Anthony Fitzpatrick had a fascination with Nolan’s Leda and the Swan in the TaraWara collection. He had no idea that his fascination would lead to a major exhibition of Nolan’s Greek influenced work.

“I’ve always been interested Nolan’s Leda and the Swan, and everyone is familiar with Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, but I wanted to explore different sides.”

He saw a Nolan exhibition at the Hellenic Museum a few years earlier and knew that Nolan “had explored Greek mythology.”

Sidney Nolan
Leda and Swan 1960
polyvinyl acetate on composition board
121.5 x 121.5 cm TarraWarra Museum of Art collection
Gift of Eva Besen and Marc Besen AO 2001 © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust / Bridgeman Images. Copyright is now managed by the Copyright Agency.

“I didn’t know when and how much Nolan delved into it, so I started doing research and discovered he spent a year in Hydra (1955-56) with [Australian writers and bohemians] George Johnson and Charmaine Clift reading the Iliad, and Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, which had just been published that year.

“Looking through those works in the first room you can just see immediately how it fired his imagination.”

Fitzpatrick has woven together an extraordinary collection Nolan’s works, he has drafted a new poetic reference to Homer’s Iliad, and the interpretations of Leda and the Swan. His curation looks at Nolan’s juxtaposition of the destruction of Troy by the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad, and the disastrous World War I, Gallipoli campaign by the Anzacs. Both were senseless, bloody, and cruel.

Sidney Nolan
Leda and Swan 1960
polyvinyl acetate on composition board
121.5 x 121.5 cm TarraWarra Museum of Art collection
Gift of Eva Besen and Marc Besen AO 2001 © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust / Bridgeman Images. Copyright is now managed by the Copyright Agency.

Nolan dives into the darkness of Leda and the Swan, when Zeus disguised as a Swan seduces or rapes Leda. For Nolan, as for the Greeks, the burning of Troy, and the rape of Leda were transgressions with endless repercussions. Nemesis born of Zeus’ rape of Leda, becomes the divine justice who reaps havoc on those who succumb to Hubris.

The way war made ‘normal men’ do inhumane things is a recuring issue in Homer’s Iliad from Nolan’s 1966 Troy – Sacrifice of Iphigenia, to Troy – Dragging of Hector. Nolan’s Gallipoli works and the horror of the sack of Troy by the Greeks are made equal in their power and beauty.

“Nolan sees Leda and the Swan as a forced violation, a violent transgression, that catalogues that cycle of violence through the Trojan War and reveals a great understanding of Greek fatalism,” says Fitzpatrick.

He adds that Nolan saw parallels between the war, ancient or contemporary, and emphasises that he is painting only ten years after the end of World War II, “you can see that in the works.”

(Warrior) 1956B. Photo: Supplied

Fitzpatrick points to Nolan’s haunting large scale 1966 Dragging of Hector, as representative of the banality and cruelty of war. Achilles enraged over the death of his lover Patroclus drags the body of Hector around the city’s battlements. Hector, Priam’s son (the king of Troy), killed Patroclus in a battle. One more offence in a choreography of offenses. For the Greeks to mutilate the dead, and not bury them, is a contravention of the divine order.

“Gallipoli, or Troy, the same land divided by thousands of years ago, and yet the horror of war is the same,” says Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick then goes to Nolan’s ANZAC “Walking Wounded” and to his rendition of the 5th Century BCE of a Clay Warrior, “they are the same soldier.”

Fitzpatrick studied the work of the late Roberto Calasso the polymath who spoke Italian, French, Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Calasso who died in 2021 left a body of work that sought to align Ancient Greek culture to contemporary world.

“Calasso’s knowledge is amazing, and he goes to all a primary source, he unearths a lot of things from fragments of lost plays, from poems and other texts.”

Heather B. Swann and Anthony Fitzpatrick. Photo: Supplied

Fitzpatrick invited Australian artist Heather B. Swann to develop an adjunct contemporary exhibition of sculptures and paintings on the theme of Leda and the Swan.

“We had shared interests we both had had well-thumbed copies of Roberto Calasso’s work, a ten-part opus, an extraordinary retelling and reimagining for our times, Calasso doesn’t just tell the stories he contextualises, and he philosophises them.”

Swann’s work is hallucinatory, and otherworldly, born of Swann’s own reading of Leda and the Swan and coming out of residencies in Greece.

Swann has also been absorbed in Greek mythology, “I played around with the stories, taking little bits here and there, and thought about the concepts behind them.”

Heather B. Swann
Leda 2021
plywood, paper, modelling clay, pigment, glue, marble dust
178 x 42 x 30 cm
Photo: Peter Whyte
Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Melbourne and Sydney

Swann said she needed to “take this seriously, I was dealing specifically with Leda” and Nolan, so she bought a ticket to Greece in 2019, and spent three weeks in Athens, then Hydra.

“I spent every single day at the National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museum.

“The last day in the Acropolis Museum I stayed until the doors closed and literally fell out exhausted, the security staff went ‘Bravo, Bravo!’”

Her sculptures and paintings invite audiences to explore emotions, and moral codes of this ambiguous, and disturbing narrative.

On the question of whether Leda was seduced, or raped Swann is resolute.

“It is a story about rape, and the story of Leda and the Swan creates Nemesis, and Nemesis is the child of a great transgression.”

Heather B Swann Leda and the Swan. Photo: Supplied

Swann recognises that the debate of whether it was a rape, or a seduction is based on the “various versions of the story.”

“But, in context of Nolan’s treatment of Leda and the Swan and war, we need a story about rape.

“If we don’t have a story about rape, how can we understand it in war, in life and history?”

Swann refers to Calasso who suggested that it was Renaissance writers and painters that sexualised the myth and changed it to seduction.

“Leda and the Swan is the personification of Nemesis; Leda could be all the women of Troy, or of all war,” says Swann.

Swann in her work subverts the kouros, the free-standing ancient Greek sculptures of the Archaic period of nude male youths. She has created naked young women, and a Black Swan instead of Zeus’ white swan.

Sidney Nolan
Trojan Horsemen 1955
water-based ochre pigment/paint on coated paper
25.5 x 30.4 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1983
© The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust / Bridgeman Images. Copyright is now managed by the Copyright Agency.

“The moment after the rape, the girl is at a different moment in the story, and the image is a refence to early Greek art, she is not dressed, and in the Archaic period women were never naked, only men.”

Swann’s huge black egg is also the embodiment of Nemesis the child of Zeus’ transgression, or his rape of Leda. And Nemesis has always been the shadow confronting Greeks, and all civilisations.

Swann also spent time in Hydra, trying to understand what Nolan did and realised it was “such a dry arid island, and that the beauty came from the water, so blue around it.”

“I  could feel that it was a tough life there, and I thought about girls, obviously that’s gendered, but and I thought about being on that island, just this one small place in Greece, and being under pressure, feeling some sort of force, and I came up with the notion of tooth and nail, that was the key to the exhibition I have made, and I though fighting tooth and nail would be my way of recasting the myth, for example through the vagina dentata, I created using hair combs.”

Sidney Nolan, Troy – The Dragging of Hector 1966 (1)[3]. Photo: Supplied
Finally, the discussion turns to the current cultural war over Classics in the Anglosphere, where critics suggest that the Classics are a Trojan Horse for whiteness and colonisation.

Swann says that “whiteness was not part of the Greek world at all.”

“You must spend much time there to know that the real colours are terracotta, deep olive green or azure blues,” says Swann

Fitzpatrick talks of how colour was purposefully taken off Greek statues by 19th Century British, German, and French restorers.

“Look at the treatment of ancient Greek marbles, where they [19th Century restorers] removed the patina, and all the the fragments of paint on those marbles thinking that were meant to be white.

“The true colours of Greece can be seen Nolan’s work in the reds, the blues and earth tones.”

Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider and Swann’s retelling of Leda and the Swan are more than an art exhibition; they are an essential nexus between the ancient Greek world and the modern – an unbroken link.

Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider is on until March 6, 2022 for more information:

SIDNEY NOLAN: MYTH RIDER FORUM, Saturday 12 February 2022, 3–5pm