In 1945, Sidney Nolan’s Head of soldier featured on the front cover of psychiatrist Reginald Ellery’s publication Psychiatric aspects of modern warfare. In different ways Nolan and Ellery both dealt with what Ellery described in his introduction as lunacy and war; two subjects that ‘have more in common than their names suggest’.
Nolan was passionately against Australian involvement in the Second World War and despite trying everything to avoid active duty was enlisted into the army in 1942. Stationed in the Wimmera, the vast flat plains of western Victoria, his unit was responsible for guarding emergency food rations for one million people in the event of invasion. Head of soldier was painted during a short period of leave while visiting his friends and supporters Sunday and John Reed in their home at Heide, where Nolan would later complete his famous Ned Kelly series of 1946–47 (NGA).
The model for Head of soldier was his commanding officer Captain Bilby. Nolan admitted in 1978 that this portrait was neither flattering nor accurate. By depicting Bilby stripped of glory, rank or other identification, Nolan suggests that this is the representation of a type and not a portrait. It is a powerfully expressive interpretation of a shell-shocked victim and exposes (as Ellery had done) the lunacy of war. The painting also lays bare Nolan’s strong personal reaction to war as an unwilling recruit.
In 1943 Nolan wrote to the first Director of the Australian War Memorial, inviting him to his exhibition and including a copy of the invitation that featured a black and white reproduction of Head of soldier. In the letter, Nolan expressed his view that he could more usefully serve the Australian Army as a war artist. John Treloar visited the exhibition but declined Nolan’s application, being somewhat unenthusiastic about the artist’s bold, penetrating works. Shortly after, in 1944, faced with the possibility of front-line service, Nolan absented himself from the army without approved leave.
Sidney Nolan has become one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. He began formal training twice at the National Gallery of Victoria School of Art but preferred to educate himself in a range of mediums and innovative approaches to artistic practice. He was very widely read and enthusiastic about the cause of modern art. In 1981 Nolan was knighted for his significant contribution to Australian art, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1983.
 R S Ellery, Psychiatric aspects of modern warfare, Reed & Harris, Melbourne, 1945, p 9.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010