Desert storm

Sidney NOLAN: artist

Not On Display

About the work

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton in 1917, Nolan delighted in drawing and writing poetry even as a young boy.

He studied at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School but, influenced entirely by European styles, he painted abstracts for several years and his first one-man show consisted of abstractions and collages.

In 1941 he was commissioned by Serge Lifar to design the sets and costumes for the ballet Icarus, an alliance with theatrical design repeated later in sets and costumes for Cocteau's Orphee and sets for Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring.

He joined the army in 1942 and while stationed in the Wimmera district produced his first paintings in a series, a method which became a feature of his work. Painting this part of the country was a break away from abstraction, a turn to interpretative landscape and an interest in child and folk art.

After leaving the army Nolan worked on the Kelly series, which established his reputation; the paintings of the bushranger were probably inspired by tales told by his grandfather who was a police officer at the time of the incidents.

Much of Nolan's work has been similarly inspired by specific areas of influence or literary and historical subject matter, such as the Burke and Wills series from the landscapes of Central Australia or the Eureka Stockade.

In 1951 Nolan travelled to Europe, held his first one-man show in London and returned to Australia exhibiting his European studies. But after a commission to record the areas of Queensland devastated by drought he returned to Europe in 1953 and since lived in London, Paris and America, travelling all over the world. His travelling has resulted in many series of paintings derived from experiences of a visual nature or references to historical incidents belonging to the area.

The Dead Heart series came from a passionate response to the drought country and, with Russell Drysdale's pictures of such a disaster, set up a wider understanding of regional Australia.

Greece triggered mythological studies and the Gallipoli series, Africa prompted many studies of animals. The Antarctic added the extremes of cold and strangeness. In America he developed the Leda and the Swan theme and rain-forest pictures from memories of tropical South-East Asia and Queensland.

His artistic talents have not been restricted to painting. He has always been prolific in screenprinting and lithography, has designed book covers, illustrated a book, designed sets for plays, costumes for music drama, and collaborated in a film.

His long residence in other countries has given him a duality of outlook epitomised in his use of Australian historical themes in a contemporary idiom. He has commented on his own attitude: 'Everything I see is reflected back to an Australian situation. You know how a stick gets bent in a glass of water, that refraction? I think everything I see, whether I paint in Africa or whatever I happen to paint, it is still part of the Australian way of looking at things. I think I'm really in the business of communicating emotions. Everybody's intellect is different but the emotions are common to us all; it's really universal'.

Probably the most widely recognised Australian painter, he has held one- man shows in Australia, America, Britain, Europe and China and is represented in major art galleries of the world.

In the seven panels of his Desert Storm the interpretation of the far north of Western Australia conveys the vastness of distance in that remote landscape. An emotional response to this rugged, harsh land is communicated by an exuberant freedom in the manipulation of paint. The colour vibrates with vivid reds and this very rawness evokes the atmosphere of the storm. Where blue sky occurs it also holds menace, in its steely tones, and is itself obliterated in the right-hand panels by the red dust of the storm.

Over all is a searing intense light, which in turn is about to be overcome by the driving force of the dust storm.

Ella Fry, Gallery Images, St George Books, Perth, 1984

Reference: Max Hollingsworth, The Australian newspaper; February 1976.
Desert storm
Artist/Maker and role
Sidney NOLAN: artist
oil on hardboard
152.3 x 122.0 cm (each panel)
Credit line
Purchased 1970
The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia
Accession number

This is one of the paintings in our collection.