Stirring : A Literary Collection

Rosanne Dingli


The first time I saw her was at the Tate Gallery in London. Arms modestly shielding her body, of which I saw only her back. Of course she was blonde. She resisted capture or rescue. Her back was straighter than mine, hips broadening only slightly.

In St Kilda, I caught a glimpse of her among palm trees whose acrylic was daubed on a grey sky with a knife so blunt it made dents in the board, which was her background. It was a reproduction, but a good one, and I believed it. Neither Eve nor Mrs. Fraser, she became for me a fixation, always present at the corner of my eye.

I saw her once at a Munch exhibition, but displaying a mood I had not seen in her before. I left her there in anger, looking for Nolan again. He would be able to realign us.

Woman and Billabong (1957). Sidney Nolan returned to the story of Mrs. Fraser and her convict rescuer Bracefell. The small pale figure - arms modestly covering herself - epitomizes the fragility of Western civilized sensibilities pitted against the relentless Australian rain forest.

Anna brought her back. She pushed the rolled up poster against my plate one dinner-time and, without finishing the meal, I ran up to the loft studio and tacked the picture to my slanting wall. The grey branches and muddy water seemed changed from the way they had looked in London but they were hers. She could bathe in peace, my gaze hardly reaching her from the undergrowth from where I watched. My instinct was to lift my head, close my eyes and howl until my voice rang against the escarpment. My instinct was to cry, but I kept as silent as she was, to escape my betrayal, to ensure against her own.

I am afraid I ignored Anna. It must have been ten days before I could descend to where she waited and we could walk out to the cafe again.

‘I am writing again,’ she said, between sips of coffee. ‘I took up the tail end of the last piece.’

I hardly listened. So she started about Sir Sidney and got my attention, asking me about Burke and Wills at the Gulf. Masking my impatience with a sudden shift of my chair, I talked about the delirium of doomed men, the emaciation of the isolated: the vastness that promotes evaporation of self. ‘They were not angels,’ I said, and lowered my eyes. I saw suddenly she and I were very similar. Hair, eyes, clothes, mannerisms: two versions of the same woman.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked.

‘Rimbaud was an angel. And Patrick White. And the woman in the billabong. And you.’

‘Me?’ She smiled and sipped at an empty cup. When I remained silent, she said, ‘Sylvia - me?’ And I thought, sometimes. Sometimes she was an angel.


From her room came clacking noises of Anna’s typewriter. I wished I could work during the day like her. My thesis had not progressed past the planning stage and I was no closer than months before to the formulation of some aim. In the loft studio I shuffled papers, drew odd shapes and waited for sunset to throw slants of watery light across the poster.

She warmed to sunlight. She swam in calm, brown water with slow strokes. Blonde hair fanned behind her where minnows made patterns on the surface. Resisting change or apprehension, she treaded water, avoiding contact with the land, with the bottom of the billabong. I almost heard her breathing.

In landscapes, as other subjects, Nolan says he starts from ‘an abstract feeling’: ‘I incorporate visual data that is liable to come from any time or place... One ends up with a landscape one has never seen before but is presumably the landscape you were feeling as you started the painting. Something arrives as visually equivalent to the first abstract sensation.’

It was useless trying to write or draw without waiting for darkness, without waiting for the flutter of wings from around the skylight. ‘No, they are not Antarctic birds!’ I shouted once, when pigeons crowded round the glass and seagulls from the marina wheeled over our roof.

Anna put her head round my door quietly and said, ‘What?’ It silenced me for a few hours. I was still looking for an angel then. I searched in heavy books and on the beach past the palm trees. I looked in reflections of faces in shop windows in Ackland Street and saw only shoes and iced cakes.

When I thought I saw her, she was hip deep in the grey water of the bay, looking toward the jetty, hair streaming down her back. She was naked: arms gracefully placed about her in place of a suit. I pointed and Anna looked; saw her surrounded by a halo of sea gulls, shouting like one possessed at the sky.

‘What do you think of Looking for angels in the work of Sir Sidney Nolan?’ I asked Anna at dinner.

‘As a title?’ She had loosened her hair. Mine was still plaited firmly out of the way since the morning. ‘Too ephemeral, Sylvia. You really should place your proposal firmly on an ideological structure.’

‘And not on the primary deception of the Garden of Eden?’ I joked, but she was in a serious mood, growing impatient with my procrastination.

‘That was Eve, not the angel.’




Nolan’s work takes its subject matter from Australia’s myths and folklore. After long periods of observation and thought, he produces several paintings on the same theme

‘He would write rather than sketch his first thoughts for a picture,’ I read from the book on my easel.

Anna cocked her head in recognition. ‘You do that!’ She said, excited, riffling through some of the papers on the floor where she was sitting, and held up some of my charcoaled words for me to see. ‘Drop perspective to vertical,’ she read. ‘Cross-hatch and cross-hatch.’ She looked up. ‘What does it mean?’

When she left I tucked my skirt between my knees and rearranged the papers on the floor. Wings were absent, but I found the beginning of a flank, of a hip and of the motion of arms reaching to high branches.

There she was. After four thousand frames I had found her again at the edge of Oceania. Neither in flight nor natant, she was held transfixed and I wondered for a long time whether I had conjured her myself.

‘Is Ned Kelly an angel?’ Anna asked in the morning. She was not joking and I could not answer. I would have to spend the rest of the day with my posters and my books, looking for the answer. Anna’s eyes were bright. Perhaps she thought I might come upon a male angel in my search. Perhaps she too had seen the fugitive fusion into sand and sky, which had hung on my wall before she brought the poster of the woman in the waterhole. Neither atoll nor errant raft, the male figure in the picture used the light in the loft, used the subterfuge of immersion without disguise.(2) The mouth was defiantly, definitely male, and he had appeared on the grey beach past the West Gate Bridge many times. Anna looked with me, out towards the invisible horizon.

‘Sometimes,’ I said. ‘Sometimes he is an angel.’



For Nolan, Rimbaud had the same fascination as Kelly or Burke and Wills - epitomising the human condition in an extreme predicament; yet unlike them, he stands also for the artist - blessed or cursed with knowledge in a world that cannot share it.

‘Can I come home and meet her, then? When can I meet this Anna?’ Victor turned and walked backward on the hard grey sand. Behind him, stacked boats at the marina made an incongruous square halo.

‘All you need is wings,’ I said.

‘Wings? To meet her?’

‘No. To be an angel.’ Then I laughed and pointed. ‘That thing is like a halo.’ Victor turned, his face a picture of confusion. He wore a horizontally striped T-shirt, like a small boy’s. It was a quick decision which made me hurry him to a cake shop and then home. She was in the kitchen. I left him there with her after a small introduction and ran up to the loft studio.

She was still there. Neither naiad nor native, she borrowed the landscape and marked it as her own, resisting capture. She could turn suddenly and betray my presence to those behind the trees. She could as if by magic sink and tread water softly, steadily, without a sound. She could raise her head and utter a high cry into the grey cloud.

From the stairs, I could hear Anna tell Victor about my thesis, how incomprehensible my explanations had become. How I was looking for angels in Nolan’s work. Her voice was tight and formal and drowned his. I heard the tinkle of good glasses and the dull thud of the fridge door closing. There was a rustle of wings and I had to return suddenly to the studio. In the sudden flood of light, I searched quickly through a pile of curved posters. And found him. I pinned him over the billabong poster.

Antarctic Explorer 1964. Nolan’s travels took him to areas as remote and inhospitable as the Antarctic. His paintings, inspired by what he saw there, usually differ greatly in mood from his Australian scenes, not least because of the predominant colour range - cool blues and sombre blacks rather than warm colours suggestive of the heat of the desert - but the theme of the explorer links his portrayals of the two great empty lands. The immensity of the landscape suggested here and the inky darkness of the sky convey a feeling of lunar isolation, with the lone figure a symbol of the fragility of human endeavour.

‘Do angels have a skeleton?’ I asked later, when I joined them in the warm kitchen. They both laughed, tilting heads backward. They turned the conversation to palm trees and the steep escarpment near the sea. I thought of legs, blue with cold, the uncertain gait of a gelid mount. I wanted to think of the woman in the billabong, but she resisted capture. The only landscape available was a flat one, large and flat as a saltpan, blue as the moon. I saw the black gaping eyes of one who eternally searches the horizon for colour.

‘Is he an angel?’ asked Anna about Victor when he had left. It required no answer, but I struggled for one, gripping my glass and sinking into the sofa slowly, tucking my skirt between my knees.

‘A solitary figure in an inhospitable background,’ I almost said. Instead, I retreated again into the silence of days, making notes instead of drawings, drawings instead of notes. On corners of dog-eared paper I made symbols of futility and of procrastination. I waited for her return.

It was a week before I could work my knife under the four tacks to look at her again. An angel, naked and possessed, she waded hip deep in water coloured red with clay. She never turned to face me. Of course she was blonde. She resisted capture or rescue.


‘But I would have liked him to be,’ I said one day, quite out of the blue.

Anna understood. She turned from her typewriter to where I stood, in her doorway.

‘I have been writing for days,’ I said needlessly.

‘Good,’ she nodded. Her hair was loose, on her shoulders, like mine. I showed her pages of my writing. She did not need to ask if I had found many angels. We walked out to the cafe again and we talked of her work, drank coffee and looked at palm trees, waited for liners on the horizon. Seagulls made a halo round her head. She moved slowly, talked of soldiers bathing so I knew she had been through my books.(3)

I told her I had found the woman again, hip deep in water, her back to me. Neither Eve nor angel, she made ripples in the water, placed her hands about herself elegantly, to protect her nudity even though she knew she was alone

Nolan’s outstanding characteristic at this time was his capacity for working his themes through to convincing, but unexpected, conclusions.

‘Ripolin, masonite and polyvinyl acetate,’ Anna read from my remnants of paper. ‘Is this a shopping list?’

I sank to my knees close to her and our coloured skirts made a mad pool in the middle of the yellow paper on the floor. ‘I haven’t heard you writing for weeks,’ I said to her, to the side of her face. ‘You are leaving, aren’t you?’

I thought she said not yet but the scuffling of birds on the roof hid her words. She raised her head as if to smell something in the air. I had tacked another curling poster to the slanting roof, but parts of the billabong showed underneath it. Water, deeply coloured and weighed with clay, seeped past sandy, dry dunes and cross-hatchings. This angel had claws, curved and curled into circles. It flew high, loomed large over our heads in a sky so blue, so flat over the mine, I believed it.(5)

When she went away, I walked on the beach. I looked at bathers and at the stacked boats of the marina and avoided Victor. If he insisted, I thought, I would say Anna had gone to the outback looking for landscapes. No, for colour. Or words. In the grey water of the bay, a slick of blue left a smudge trailing to the jetty. She stood in it, hip deep. Resisting capture or rescue, she arranged her arms about her in place of a costume. Birds wheeled over her head like a halo. Of course she was blonde.

At home, I removed tacks quickly with my blunt knife. They left minute holes in the billabong poster. She had not faded, but the corners had curled. I stood with her on cold tiles. My clothes lay in a pool of colour. I turned taps and hot water gushed onto us both, making us cry out: making us throw our heads back and howl at the sky. My hair streaked on my shoulders. Paper disintegrated. Pulpy sods slid through my fingers. Steam made a halo of condensation on the mirror and I looked into its circle, to escape her betrayal, to ensure against my own.



(1)From The Great Artists Marshall Cavendish 1986

(2)Ned Kelly 1964 Sidney Nolan Private Collection

(3)Gallipoli 1955 Sidney Nolan Private Collection

(4)From The Encyclopedia of Australian Art by Alan McCulloch, Hutchinson 1968

(5)Pretty Polly Mine 1949 Sidney Nolan Art Gallery of New South Wales

Location: Western Australian
Book: Death in Malta

Stirring : A Literary Collection

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