The Wanderings of Cain: a reaction to Sidney Nolan’s The Wanderings of Cain

Between the 11th of June and the 25th of July 1997, a major exhibition of paintings from Sidney Nolan's estate was held at the private gallery Agnew's in Old Bond Street, London.

Sidney Nolan's The Wanderings of Cain was painted as a response to Nolan's good friend Benjamin Britten's Nocturne which was composed for the Aldeburgh Festival (founded by Britten) in 1958. The work was displayed at the 1976 festival just after Britten's death. The specific "nocturne" on which Nolan based the painting uses Coleridge's poem-fragment "Encinctured with a twine of leaves" that was to be part of The Wanderings of Cain. Coleridge wrote: "I have in vain tried to recover the lines from the palimpsest tablet of my memory: and I can only offer the introductory stanza, which had been committed to writing for the purpose of procuring a friend's judgment on the metre, as a specimen" - the lines ran as follows:

Encinctured with a twine of leaves,
That leafy twine his only dress!
A lovely boy was plucking fruits,
By moonlight, in a wilderness.
The moon was bright, the air was free,
And fruits and flowers together grew
On many a shrub and many a tree:
And all put on a gentle hue,
Hanging in the shadowy air
Like a picture rich and rare.
It was a climate where, they say,
The night is more belov’d than day.
But who that beauteous Boy beguil'd,
That beauteous Boy to linger here?
Alone, by night, a little child,
In place so silent and so wild -
Has he no friend, no loving mother near?

Nolan painted the work shortly after the death of his second wife, Cynthia, so it is not surprising that, in keeping with the theme of dreams and sleep, there is a strongly elegiac quality to the canvas. Matching the sense of breath that Britten employs in his composition the canvas is sparse though not tranquil. The almost cyclical interruption of sleep is also evident in the Nolan, but more tangentially; the figure-in-the-landscape, isolated and vulnerable in the lower right-hand corner of the painting seems false-faced - the moon arcs in a blue-white sky with the stars faint but undeniable. The land itself is yellow and black and almost burnt like the moon. In keeping with Coleridge's statement there is palimpsest - a dragging into consciousness of the memories of sleep. The "twine of leaves" is there, though the sparse trees in the distance, stark at the point where the form of the sky meets the form of the land, bare fruit that seems forbidding, almost unreachable, and not for "plucking". Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is heavier than I can bear; thou hast driven me today from the ground, and I must hide from thy presence. I shall be a vagrant and wanderer on earth, and anyone who meets me can kill me." In Nolan's painting, as in Britten's song setting, there is nowhere to hide. There is a mournful beauty, but no escape.

It is interesting to read, "That many of the verses Britten set are extracted from larger contexts (and thus lack finality) aids this impression, while enigmatic and obsessive texts conjure up a less neatly picturesque nocturnal world than that of the Serenade." It is not hard to see why Nolan was so comfortable working with Britten's compositions. Nolan also works in cycles and extracts from larger contexts. Myth is not something stagnant, locked in a distant impenetrable past, but something living and moving in and out of time. It is the paradox of time and myth, of the recurring archetype that captures Nolan's imagination and brings vitality to his work. It is this fluidity that allows European myth to be so readily incorporated into the fabric of the Australian landscape and indigenous "myth". The sleep of the artist is interrupted by dreams from a collective inheritance. This is a case not of appropriation but of interpretation. The artist as medium. As in the case of Britten, musician as medium calling on the cyclical nature of the poem, the oral tradition.

Both musician and artist incorporated all art forms into their respective crafts. Painting for Nolan was interactive, not specific and limited to a particular code of practice. He had a great knowledge of music and poetry, (and was a fair, if infrequent, poet himself). The following poems arise out of visiting the Nolan exhibition and reflecting on the peripheries of the wheatbelt Western Australian landscape I have left, from within a fen landscape that has its own desolations, despite apparent verdure. Cambridge is increasingly surrounded by the drought of genetically modified crops and geno-companies like The Wellcome Trust, who work to invert nature in the name of humanity. Monsanto has its claws in here as well, patenting seed stock. There is the subtext of a Cain and Abel here, of Babel, of Sodom and Gomorrah. Judaeo-Christian analogies are easy to forge and are deployed in publicity against these companies. This is an issue in which the subsconscious will of the people is being called upon — that the attack is not only on our physical living conditions but at the core of our ethical and spiritual selves. But there is a darkness there that is like the brilliance of the sun in the drought-riven Australian outback. The wind still blows through the GM crops and rustles their florescent green stems — the rustle still evokes conforting memories. The horror lies within. The sun on the sand, bleached bones, and steel blue skies are also beautiful. Nolan captures the beauty of horror, the Matisse-like dance of life conflated with Münch’s dances of death. The binary doesn’t work — death has beauty! Britten’s Nocturne cycle (with its moves through C and D flat), and Coleridge’s “Hanging in the shadowy air/Like a picture rich and rare” lift out of the physical. The action is subdued by the dream. Beauty is external — all of these pieces recognise this. The issue is below the surface, out of view, and this is where Nolan’s paintings work hardest. He achieves this by having us look hard and starkly. The images are iconic and like hot metal in a printer’s shop. In the dream-state, in the archetypal-rich space of nightmares, the images merge and produce a profound discomfot. Nolan has sound, sight, and subtext at work simultaneously. It’s a spatiality of the subconscious. Nothing is still, the points of reference shifting their coordinates .

The Iconography of Drought

Screwed up by the sun, held together

by maggots, dehorned and castrated anyway

it stands like a rotting ship struck by lightning.

The eye is a window to unmoving space, the

brain inside defrauded. Any birthmarks

are made by a whip.

And yet nothing is forever, this universal

victim will not be knocked, it was not

mummified in the belief that God is a drover.

Sidney Nolan


The colour and texture of The Dry

seem to deny fuel for fire though sparks

tessellate the dark hide as if its bones

are burning, or the pasture

is shedding its invisibility and erupting

like hot tongues, lashing out at the rainless storm,

declaring green fields the camouflage

of the "uncomprehending" who can't solve a riddle

despite the answer staring them in the face.


Worst drought on record? Taking it back

like war footage - the mystification of contortion -

the punters thinking over their tea or beer

that these beasts might have had souls,

that the abattoir might not have been

up to scratch: their bones crossed and sticking up

like totems. But then "surreal", a word they'd

not heard before, blurred the images: not beasts

at all - these were of another world!


This small drought was massive to us

a farmer says, dumping skin and bones

on the tray of his truck. There were so many

the crevices were choked with their

dumb spirits. At night you'd sense them

flooding out over the malicious ochre

just to give themselves space. Had some hero

up here last week taking photos, telling me

their expressions were excruciatingly beautiful.


A splash of blue paint might bring

irony if there were room for it. Yes,

even scoured sockets have sight. In London

it has them saying, "Don't you feel close

to it? As if it's going to twist and squirm

out of the frame and onto the carpet."

And it being such unseasonable weather -

cold and raining in mid-summer,

a hint of drought straining at the fence.

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