Cartoons for Joseph Selleny, 2014

12 cartoons, charcoal drawings perforated and pounced with cheesecloth bags full of ground charcoal; wall drawing created through pouncing with cheesecloth full of ground charcoal, 1200 × 500 cm; off-set printed artist’s book to take away.

Exh.: As a solo exhibition, curated by Natasha Bullock, AGNSW, Sydney, 22 May — 6 August 2014; to be followed by Allegory of the Cave Painting, curated by Mihnea Mircan, Extra City, Antwerp, 20 September — 7 December 2014.


Cartoons for Joseph Selleny makes use of a Renaissance drawing technique. In preparing frescoes, large-scale preparatory drawings (known as “cartoons”) were perforated and then beaten with cheesecloth full of charcoal dust (known as “pouncing”) to make the dotted outline of an image on to a wall that would then be painted as a fresco.


Nicholson’s project brings together two narratives: the narratives of the work’s own making, using these Renaissance techniques; and the narratives surrounding the remarkable visit to Sydney Harbour by an Austrian frigate, the Novara, in 1858, a ship built in Venice’s Arsenale (amidst the revolution of 1848, during which it was taken by Manin and his fellow revolutionaries at the very outset of the anti-imperial uprising), and sponsored by the Austrian Archduke Maximilian (later puppet Emperor of Mexico), patron of the Novara as well as patron and friend of the Novara’s official artist, Joseph Selleny.

In Nicholson’s work these two narratives—around the work’s own processes and evolution, and around the Novara and its stay on Sydney Harbour—pivot around the four versions of The Execution of Maximilian painted by the French artist Edouard Manet between 1867 and 1869. Nicholson has produced preparatory drawings for these four versions of Manet’s painting after the fact. These charcoal cartoons are perforated and pounced, partly un-making the drawings, and producing a vast abstracted wall drawing on to the Gallery wall.


A take-away artist’s book consists of nine imaginary letters written by the artist. It weaves together the evolution of the project itself, and the history of the Novara, specifically around the Aboriginal objects which were taken from Sydney during Her stay and which Nicholson viewed in the Vienna Ethnographic Museum at the outset of the project.

Nicholson’s work meditates on the nature and possibilities of drawing, and on the indirect ways that pictures yield stories. His letters constantly return to Sydney Harbour, the space where the Novara docked in 1858, where its gondola roamed (as a strange trophy residue of the turmoil of the frigate’s creation in 1848), the same body of water the Gallery overlooks. The repeated drawings of Manet’s image of violence become images to shadow the Harbour, the space from which the invasion of the continent begins in 1788. At the same time, Nicholson’s wall drawing, the intricate accumulation of traces of those same drawn images of violence, suggests a different or new spectre for the Harbour.

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