Sidney Nolan’s lifelong involvement in the theatre began in 1939 when he was asked by Serge Lifar to design the backdrops for the visiting Russian Ballet’s production of Icarus. Nolan’s second foray
into stage design came in 1948 when he designed the sets, program and poster for the production of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée by the Sydney University Dramatic Society. Orphée, a surrealist reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth, was first performed in Paris in 1926 and was one of the first surrealist theatrical pieces performed in Australia.
In Nolan’s painting Orphée 1948, the central figure is taken from a photograph of Cocteau in the part of the angel Heurtebise. He is placed in front of the mirror that was the passageway from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Nolan’s starkly simplified backdrop recalls the horizontal division of land and sky in Nolan’s Ned Kelly 1946, the figure of Cocteau occupying the same position within the composition as that of Kelly in the earlier work. The work is strongly surrealistic in the dreamlike effect of the floating figure set against the wide blue sky and in the symbolism of the mirror as a portal into another state of reality. Nolan’s incorporation of silver foil to represent the mirror is an early example in Australian art of the use of collage elements in paintings.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010