#NOLAN100 - NO. 23
Agricultural Hotel, 1948
'Sidney Nolan’s art has embedded some powerfully iconic images into the Australian cultural optic: the black letter box of Ned Kelly’s quilted iron armour, sometimes with Ned’s eyes, sometimes a furnace, or just a clear view to a yellowing Australian landscape. Stripey Eliza Fraser and the convict on their dark dream of an island. The doomed, camel-mounted explorers Burke and Wills, always looking out at the viewer in stupefied photo opportunities, on the fringe of watery-grey ramshackle settlements, or mangrove-stranded. Returned soldiers with skewed faces. Always painterly and knowingly naïve, there are also ideas strewn across Nolan’s work: surreal drop-ins, or are they interlopers? – desert birds and decoy ducks in mid-air, upside-down horses in free-fall, sheep carcasses in trees. Metaphysical paintings – what is there exactly? they ask – free of mannerism.
This painting was used on a dustjacket of Cynthia Nolan’s 1962 travelogue, Outback, about her, Sidney and their daughter Jinx’s travels across the centre and the west in 1948, the year of their marriage. This painting was probably inspired by a slightly earlier trip to Bourke in north-western New South Wales. With other paintings of hotels of the same year – “Royal Hotel,” “Dog and Duck” it seems to epitomise the haunting, desolate outback that Nolan would shortly expatriate himself from. A relict landscape, the remains of an earlier era of settlement well on its way to extinction. That’s J. Sheehan presumably, front and centre, with his clean white shirt. Irish Australian but with hidalgo moustaches, a singular type of the Licensee.
The landscapes of these hotel paintings are evenly divided between a cinnabar-tinged ochre foreground and a white-glowing azure sky. Barely visible on the horizon are some mauve mullock heaps, and beyond that a blue range, but it might as well be another planet. “Agricultural Hotel” is less grand than Nolan’s other hotels, it has only one storey, two tin chimneys. The metaphysical dimension is apparent from the absurd, wire-framed contraption on the roof of the hotel, the skeleton of a reaper-binder. Why is it there? Or, is it there? Sheehan must dream of being a purveyor of agricultural implements as well as a hotel licensee, and this machine is a figment of his imagination, a sketch. Nolan sees a beautifully coloured landscape, precarious as a movie set, almost empty, but inhabited somehow, haunted by incomprehensible individuals. The psyche of the place is so delicate and finely balanced.'
Professor Philip Mead is inaugural Chair of Australian Literature at University of Western Australia and Director of the Westerly Centre.
Sidney Nolan, Agricultural Hotel, 1948, Ripolin on board, 90.2x120.5 cm (h,w), The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Tom Collins Memorial Fund, 1953, © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust