Tom Nicholson is a Melbourne artist whose work explores the past in multiple ways, through image and textual narrative. The scale of his art is big. Last year the Art Gallery of New South Wales dedicated an entire gallery to his Cartoons for Joseph Selleny, a work commemorating the Viennese landscape painter and lithographer Joseph Selleny (1824–75), who served as the official artist on the Imperial Austrian frigate Novara which visited Sydney with a scientific retinue in August 1858, recording, documenting, and carrying back to Vienna many items of anthropological interest.
The work is made up of a wall drawing of huge dimensions (1200 x 500 cm), together with a series of eight smaller scale interrelated cartoons, and a small book that the visitor is invited to take away and read, containing images, ideas, and stories in the form of letters to friends, both living and dead. Through the synthesis of these various elements, Selleny and the Novara are placed at the centre of a large and sprawling narrative ranging from the early colonial appropriation of Australia by the British to the Austrian oppression in Italy, from the French imperial supremacy in Mexico to the Holocaust and its aftermath. Defying formalist notions of self-referential art, Nicholson’s Cartoons are not confined solely by the limits of a gallery, but seep inevitably through and beyond those boundaries. The accompanying text, with its low-resolution photos and easy conversational tone, works through the puzzles of the Novara story, making no claims to coffee-table grandeur, quietly advancing an alternative model of the artist’s book. Neither the gallery nor the book, it seems, holds any final answers. Each gestures to other places, other mysteries, other absences in our representation and understanding of the past.
‘Defying formalist notions of self-referential art, Nicholson’s Cartoons are not confined solely by the limits of a gallery, but seep inevitably through and beyond those boundaries’
Selleny was an exceptional draughtsman who was awarded the much-coveted Prix de Rome for his landscape drawings and precise depictions of nature. During the two years he studied in Italy (1854–55), Selleny met his patron, the young Austrian admiral, Archduke Ferdinand-Joseph Maximilian, whom Nicholson weaves skillfully into his overall tale of imperial adventure. Maximilian (the younger brother of Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph I) was persuaded by Napoleon III to take up the role of Emperor of Mexico, and establish French rule over the country that Napoleon had invaded in his continuing quest for colonies. Maximilian arrived in Mexico in 1864 to find the country divided by civil war between the Republicans, led by Benito Juárez, and the conservative elite allied to Napoleon III. Despite his sympathy for many of the causes espoused by the Republicans, Maximilian was captured and executed by the rebels three years after his arrival in Mexico.
Edouard Manet, who also felt strong sympathy for the rebels, painted four versions of the execution between 1867 and 1869. In most (though not all) of these surviving versions the identity of the principal figures is reversed, the firing squad being clad in uniforms resembling those of the French army, aiming standard French muskets at Maximilian.[i] Nicholson explores and extends the subversive implications of this representation in his eight smaller-scale pin-pricked cartoons which rework Manet’s painting, focusing on the version now held by the National Gallery London. This is one of the several treatments of the subject in which the identity of the participants is reversed in this way. It is notable also for a further reason: it exists only in fragments, large sections of the work having been lost. The whole picture, like the whole story of conquest and retaliation that it seeks to capture – so Nicholson’s selection of this fractured image seems to suggest – cannot easily be reassembled.
Manet had been greatly inspired by the work of Goya, whose Disasters of War (1808–14) Nicholson has also admired since his student days. Manet’s Execution of Maximilian is directly modelled on Goya’s dramatic composition The Third of May 1808, which similarly depicts a firing squad, taking aim this time at distraught local citizens during Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. In these two works, so foundational to modernism, both Goya and Manet turn away from accepted pictorial themes, each becoming – in the words of Picasso ‘a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate, or pleasing events of the world, shaping himself completely in their image’.[ii] In his choice of this subject, Nicholson signals his allegiance to the same modernist tradition of political engagement with the world.
Nicholson’s artist’s book reminds us of further dimensions and ironies in Selleny’s story. The Novara was not only the ship that brought Selleny and his colleagues to Sydney; it was also the ship that took Maximilian a few years later to Mexico, and brought the Emperor’s bullet-riddled body back to Vienna. The ship had been built at the arsenal of Venice during the Venetian rebellion of 1848 against Austria’s occupation of the country. It carried thereafter a gondola on board, as a kind of trophy of war. During the six weeks that the frigate remained in Sydney, the crew used this gondola – in a bizarre reminder of another imperial exploit on the other side of the world – to travel around the Harbour. Nicholson thus adds layer upon layer to his larger narrative, while other elements fall away, or elude enquiry; a process mirrored in the multiple, shifting format of the Cartoons themselves, and the artist’s intellectual journey that led to their creation.
‘In his choice of this subject, Nicholson signals his allegiance to the same modernist tradition of political engagement with the world’
Tom Nicholson travelled to Vienna in search of the material that the Novara brought back from Sydney, which is now scattered variously between the storerooms of the Vienna Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Albertina. He found numerous indigenous cultural objects – boomerangs, parrying shields, spears – together with vast cases of stuffed Australian birds: lyrebirds, sulphur-crested cockatoos, emus, galahs, ‘the biggest collection on earth apparently’. Grainy photos of some of these objects, along with letters reporting on his findings, appear in the artist’s book. Yet fifty or so of the objects that were taken by the Novara from Sydney in 1858 and clearly entered in the ship’s catalogue and that of the Natural History Museum had now disappointingly vanished, while other surviving souvenirs, like the feathered birds ‘in room after room, case after case, but with no wind to ruffle them’, had lost their lustre. [iii]
Nicholson was excited nonetheless by seeing in Vienna the beautiful drawings that Selleny had made from the deck of the Novara, and in a letter addressed imaginatively to Selleny himself praises the way they make ‘you feel the wind and weather upon your body’. ‘I find them stunning,’ he writes, ‘as drawings dedicated to how wind makes itself visible upon a surface (the surface of the ocean), an intricate and indeterminate set of effects in turn visited upon another surface (the surface of the paper).’ He praises with equal warmth Selleny’s last work, Australischer Urwald (‘the Australian primeval forest’), painted after Maximilian’s execution in 1867. ‘It is a truly strange last work, both in response to his patron’s death’ and in ‘anticipation of his own’, Nicholson writes, ‘like thousands of microscopic views on to the world sutured together into a hallucination’. In a letter to another correspondent in the artist’s book describing the extraordinary effect of this painting, Nicholson reproduces a half-tone photographic detail from the work. ‘I could not find a way to photograph the painting in its totality in a way that adequately captured the extraordinary excess of its detail,’ he writes, ‘a baroqueness that is both empirically true to the wonderful abundance of the rainforest in that part of New South Wales but also gives the painting the suggestion of a hallucination.’ ‘Hallucination’, because Selleny was striving to recall the Australian forests he had seen during his visit to Sydney a decade earlier – just as Nicholson himself now strives to convey a sense of this painting to his present correspondent. Both the difficulty and the excitement of expressing these sensations and of conveying these glimpses of a now-vanished past are vividly registered.
In a further attempt to convey, this time through his art, the ‘intricate and indeterminate effects’ that Selleny had captured in his drawings and paintings, as of wind ruffling the surface of the water, Nicholson turns to the method of pouncing that was used by Renaissance artists for transferring a cartoon from one surface to another. This involves pricking tiny holes along a traced outline of the work, then beating ground charcoal wrapped in cheese-cloth through the holes on to a fresh surface. The artist is never fully in control of this process, as the charcoal dust flies about in the breeze that this beating creates. Nicholson’s interest in this technique derives both from his training in Melbourne and his childhood years in Italy, where he was deeply affected by the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Raphael, and Michelangelo, and the cycles of images found (for example) in the Scrovegni and Sistine Chapels, where – in a manner mirrored in his own work – grand figurative narratives are set out within an enclosed space.
The eight smaller-scale cartoons which rest loosely on two walls of the gallery in Nicholson’s Selleny series reproduce and rework Manet’s Execution of Maximilian. The perforated outlines of this painting have been transferred in a more dispersed and abstracted fashion through the process of pouncing directly on to the surface of the third wall to form part of the huge drawing which dominates this room. The cartoons are difficult to read on first entering this space. The disaggregating charcoal produced through the process of pouncing has almost obliterated the original figuration of Manet’s painting, saturating the cartoons with Orphaic blackness, like that in Goya’s Disasters of War. The vast wall drawing presents a stark contrast to these sombre pieces, its dominant white ground retaining an extraordinary luminosity. The blackness and whiteness of these adjacent works dazzle contrastively, like alternative visions of the world. The big wall drawing, bearing marks of the pouncing technique, is difficult in another sense to read. All that is visible on its pale surface appear to be random charcoal marks, smudges, black pinpricks, crowding as a shadowy mass or dispersed as single dots marking distant points. What exactly does this drawing represent, or gesture towards?
‘The disaggregating charcoal produced through the process of pouncing has almost obliterated the original figuration of Manet’s painting, saturating the cartoons with Orphaic blackness’
In Wreck Bay, south of Sydney, lives Aunt Julie Freeman, the Gorawarl-Jerrawongarla elder and artist, with whom Tom Nicholson talked at length, as further letters in the artist’s book reveal. They talked about Sydney Harbour, that site of imperial conquest, which ‘always bears that spectre of violence, the brute reality of what begins here’. Aunt Julie recalled the way the Harbour must have looked before 1788 to Bungaree, the Aboriginal negotiator from Broken Bay who later circumnavigated the continent with Matthew Flinders, but was then still a boy. At night the Harbour was ‘populated by Eora fishing boats, each with a small fire upon a clay pan, both a way to attract fish with the fire’s light and a means to immediately cook them once they’re caught’; the Harbour becoming ‘a dark expanse dotted with pinpricks of light’.
This image, says Nicholson, ‘dwelt powerfully in my head as I flew back to Melbourne … imagining looking down upon that expanse of starry sky from the aeroplane above’. He thought of the wall drawing ‘as a view of the night sky inverted, with each star a little charcoal mass of dark light’. He thought, too, of Bungaree’s crucial role in the first mapping with Flinders of the outline of Australia, his careful parlaying with one local community after another as the two men rounded the continent. ‘It’s a pity there’s not a map of points – an archipelago of dots marking out these hundreds and hundreds of places where complex and ambiguous negotiations unfolded – as famous as that continuous line of Flinders’ map.’
These multiple lines of memory, artistry, and exploration are subtly traced throughout Nicholson’s Cartoons for Joseph Selleny, in a form of historical mapping he has made very much his own: a form that concedes the inevitable gaps and absences in our recovery of the past, and its pleasures alongside its horrors.
Was Bungaree’s skull taken off on the Novara (Nicholson asks in one of his letters in the artist’s book) as a further item of imperial plunder? He could find no trace of its existence today in Vienna. But the past, as his art recognises, can never be mapped in its totality; it remains, like the Harbour itself, ‘a dark expanse dotted with pinpricks of light’.
[i] John Elderfield, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006.
[ii] Picasso: Peace and Freedom, catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2010.
[iii] This and several subsequent quotations are from Tom Nicholson, Cartoons for Joseph Selleny (20122014), artist’s book, (Melbourne 2014)