Auschwitz holds a special place in the modern imagination, being synonymous with a horror that defies the descriptive powers of art. It was the largest of the Nazi extermination camps, responsible for the deaths of more than 1.1 million people. It inspired the German intellectual, T.W. Adorno, to famously declare: “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” He also suggested that black should be the only permissable colour on a painter’s palette.
In Auschwitz, murder was practised on an industrial scale, barbarism refined into a method. The camp has become a touchstone for those who feel human nature is essentially bestial or negative, yet the greatest survival memoirs are testimonies to the resilience of the spirit. We are moved by writers such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, but never left despairing. The late Eddie Jaku titled his 2020 memoir, The Happiest Man on Earth!
Shaken to his Core: The Unknown Story of Nolan’s Auschwitz, at the Sydney Jewish Museum, brings together a group of works Sidney Nolan created prior to a 1961 visit to the concentration camp, following the trial of Adolf Eichmann. These paintings remained buried away until they were exhibited in August 2021 at the Sidney Nolan Trust in Herefordshire.
Even though he is probably the most famous Australian artist of the modern era, Nolan remains an enigmatic figure. When putting together a retrospective in 2007 Barry Pearce estimated Nolan must have painted some 35,000 pictures. This seems even more remarkable when we learn how the artist would go for months at a time without picking up a brush, then charge into the studio and produce hundreds of images in a week.
Nolan is probably responsible for more dud paintings than any other Australian artist, but he was also capable of knocking off a masterpiece. He had an extraordinary talent for painting, but a genius for socialising. Whatever the deficiencies of the work, Nolan made up for it with his charm and intelligence. An autodidact in many fields, Nolan was genuinely cultivated, but there was a touch of the charlatan in his make-up.
And so it is that one approaches every Nolan exhibition in a cautious manner. I’ve seen brilliant shows and terrible ones, but he can never be dismissed in advance.
What’s most striking about Shaken to his Core, is the thought of Nolan being moved, literally overwhelmed, by the gravity of his subject. When painting Ned Kelly or Burke and Wills, such figures were far enough removed from the artist’s own life and times that they could be treated as literary inventions. In January 1962, when he accompanied the writer, Al Alvarez, to Auschwitz, to illustrate an article for The Observer, Nolan believed he would find a way of incorporating the Holocaust into his own myth-making vision. Indeed, he wrote in his diary: “if we could paint the subject it would be a duty to do so.”
These noble aims were completely defeated by the reality of Auschwitz. Alvarez described what they found: “Mountains of human hair, suitcases, spectacles, shaving brushes, artificial limbs. Great mounds of old shoes reach up like rubble after an air raid”. All of it, notes historian, Andrew Turley, was covered in dust and human ashes.
Alvarez recalled that Nolan was “upset less by the obvious horrors – the crematoria, the mountains of shorn hair, discarded spectacles, suitcases and artificial limbs – than by the orderliness of the camp’s layout… The interiors of the barracks were dreadful – the tiers of bunks in which the prisoners slept, six men to a bunk, like battery hens waiting to be slaughtered.”
Defeated by his first-hand experience of the camp, Nolan refused the assignment. It would be months before he could bring himself to listen to music. The actual sights would remain in his mind for the rest of the year, finding echoes in a later series of African paintings.
This exhibition consists of works made before the visit to Auschwitz, when Nolan, like millions of others, was glued to the TV set watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who devised the mass rail transport system that carted victims to the camps. Eichmann had escaped to South America after the war, where he was discovered and kidnapped by Mossad agents in 1960. His trial in Jerusalem would be broadcast around the world.
Hannah Arendt, who wrote the most famous account of the proceedings coined the phrase “the banality of evil”, in response to Eichmann’s sheer ordinariness. Rather than a monster, she saw a man that was “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. It was Eichmann’s capacity to carry out monstrous acts in an orderly, business-like manner that was so disturbing. For Arendt, this ability to normalise atrocity provided an insight, not into the mind of a mass murderer, but into the lower depths of human nature.
In this show we see seven of twelve portraits of Eichmann painted by Nolan from news images. Like Arendt, he seems to be searching for that mysterious element that makes Eichmann the embodiment of evil, but finds only the bureaucrat, with his high forehead and glasses, who insists he was merely doing his job.
When Eichmann was convicted and sentenced to death, on 15 December 1961, Nolan began painting faces that were filed under the title ‘Judges and Victims’. There would be more than 80 in the series, of which 24 are on display at the museum. After a break of nine days, he was compelled to begin again, painting more than a hundred Holocaust images. These pictures are raw and dashed-off, but powerfully confronting. We see bodies piled high on barrows, a crucifix that spouts smoke like the chimneys of the Auschwitz crematoria. Across the bar of another crucifix, a skeleton lies prone.
Nolan is speaking in broad, general terms, linking the Holocaust to the historical persecution of the Jews. These crude, black figures are barely more than silhouettes, political graffiti imbued with artistic and historical references, relaying a dark message about hatred, violence and fanaticism.
When we realise these pictures were painted prior to the Auschwitz visit, one can see how Nolan’s imagination worked to conceptualise the subject, as it had so many earlier themes. After he had seen the camp with his own eyes, this was no longer possible. If we accept Alvarez’s account that Nolan was more disturbed by the orderly nature of the camp rather than the obvious signs of atrocity, we learn much about the way the artist’s mind worked.
The precise order of Auschwitz was anathema to Nolan’s own spontaneous methods, which allowed images to arise from his subconscious and fly off the end of a brush. He was less concerned about finish or detail, than about capturing an idea as quickly and forcefully as possible. In Auschwitz he was confronted with the greatest site of mass murder in history, but everything had been organised and planned with industrial efficiency. To Nolan it was inconceivable that killing could be carried out in such a cold and calculated manner.
In his stunned response to Auschwitz and his obsessive interrogation of Eichmann’s face and features, Nolan gets close to Hannah Arendt’s conclusions about the Nazis and human nature. If he was “shaken to his core”, it was because he had discovered the human capacity to normalise even the greatest evils. Decades after the Second World War and the opening of the camps it’s a lesson worth bearing in mind, because when we forget the horrors of the past, evil takes on an awful glamour. In a world in which violence is once more being coldly pursued as an instrument of policy there’s an urgent need to remind ourselves, through art and other means, exactly where it all leads.
Shaken to His Core: The Untold Story of Nolan’s Auschwitz
Sydney Jewish Museum, 21 July – 23 October, 2022
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August, 2022