Fuelled by a keen interest in travel, Nolan’s personal experiences of the land are closely linked to the development of mythology within his work. The Burke and Wills paintings from 1949–50 emerged after a journey to Central Australia in 1949. Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills were explorers who died in an attempt to make the first organised crossing of Australia from south to north in 1860–61.
In Burke at Cooper’s Creek the ghostly appearance of the ill-fated Burke compounds the notions of isolation, displacement and tragedy relating to the expedition. On leaving the Cooper’s Creek depot on 16 December 1860, Burke told his party that if he had not returned within three months he could be considered perished. Four months later he returned to the empty site, only nine hours after the rest of the party had departed. He died from exhaustion, south of the camp.1 Writing about the series some years later, Nolan said that:
… wanting to paint Burke and Wills really comes from a need to freshen history and to make these remote happenings really belong to us now … There seem to be three elements in the paintings: the actuality of the landscape, which for Australians is intensified to the point of a dream; the strange conjunction of a man on a camel, from which he surveys the landscape as if he were walking on giant stilts; and always the birds, which make everything vivid … I doubt that I will ever forget my emotions when first flying over Central Australia and realising how much we painters and poets owe to our predecessors the explorers, with their frail bodies and superb willpower.2
1 Felicity Johnston, ‘Sidney Nolan’, in Anne Gray (ed.), The way we were 1940–1950s from the University of Western Australia Art Collection, Perth: Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 1997 p. 24.
2 Sidney Nolan, letter to Geoffrey Dutton, London, 28 April 1967, Cynthia Nolan Papers. See Geoffrey Smith, Sidney Nolan: desert and drought, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2003, p. 66.