Important Australian + International Fine Art
9 May 2007

Sidney Nolan

(1917 - 1992)

oil on composition board

121.0 x 121.0 cm

signed and dated lower centre: 16 Sept 1964/ Nolan

$40,000 - 60,000
Sold for $45,600 (inc. BP) in Auction 1 - 9 May 2007, Melbourne

Australian Galleries, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne
Leonard Joel, Melbourne, 30 July 1997, lot 66 as 'The artist in Antarctica'
Savill Galleries, Sydney
Private collection, Sydney
Private collection, Melbourne


Sidney Nolan, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 21 September - 1 October 1965, cat.22
Sidney Nolan: Ned Kelly and Beyond, Savill Galleries, Sydney, 18 March - 9 April 1998, cat.40 (illus.)
Nolan Heads, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 4 August - 30 September 2001
Sidney Nolan: Antarctic Journey, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, 29 November 2006 - 25 February 2007, cat.50 (illus.)


Australian Women's Weekly, Sydney, 15 September 1965, p.11 (illus.)
Sidney Nolan: Antarctic Journey, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Melbourne, 2006, cat.50, p.60 (illus.)

Catalogue text

Against a waste of ice almost as literal as any seen by National Geographic Magazine he will place a figure out of a dream or nightmare with blacktunnels for eyes and no natural business in the natural world.'1

Engaging and multifaceted in its resonance, the present work belongs to the highly acclaimed 'Antarctica' series which Sidney Nolan executed from April to September 1964 at his studio in London, following his visit to the region earlier the same year. Encapsulating the artist's abiding 'Turneresque' quest to 'convey the vastness of nature's flux'2, such works bear strong thematic affinities with both the Burke and Wills series immediately preceding, and the Australian Riverbend paintings of 1964-65 which ensued. As one author suggests, 'Antarctica is another desert of sorts- vast, extreme and uncompromising, its explorers as brave and ultimately as flawed as the early explorers of Australia's 'dead heart.''3

As documented in the artist's comprehensive diary of the series' evolution, from Wednesday 16 September (when the present work was painted) through to Sunday 20 September 1964, Nolan revisited and elaborated upon his earlier characterisations of Antarctic explorers. Most notably, where the earlier paintings dating from 9 September had featured the explorers dwarfed by the alien environment in which they were placed, this subsequent group comprised of 17 close-up portraits of his protagonists. If imbued with an element of the comic or absurd- Nolan describes one of his explorers as a cross between 'Robinson Crusoe + Father Christmas'- such images also bear a more reverent tone. Equating his explorers with religious icons, indeed the artist compares two works executed on 16 September to 'Byzantine Saints Heads + Abo Totem heads (ice = feathers?)', and a third, 'like saint'.4

Fourth in this later group of explorer paintings, the present Antarctic Explorer 1964 departs significantly from its predecessors in the use of a powerfully stark frontal view, punctuated only by sunken, hollow eye sockets. Merging the explorer's head and body with the background- a 'grey-green face ingreen ice sea'5- thus Nolan presents not so much a portrait as an apparition of a long departed soul, his woollen balaclava and bulky clothes assuming the aura of a halo. As Elwyn Lynn poignantly observes, '...never has man looked so isolated and vulnerable.'6

1. Donald Brook cited in Sidney Nolan: Antarctic Journey, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery,Victoria, 2006, p.60
2. Lynn, E., Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery, Macmillan, London, 1967, pp.43-45
3. James, R., 'Deserts of Ice' in Sidney Nolan, op.cit., p.3
4. Nolan cited ibid., p.55
5. Nolan cited ibid., p.56
6. Lynn, E., The Australian, 18 September 1965, p.12