Death in Excess: Nuclear Imagery

Nuclear conflagration - whether real or imagined - captivated the post war psyche. Endist images of one form or another were developed in response to what many foresaw as the likely outcome of a third world war.

Art and material culture perform a traditionally significant role in the conceptualisation of both the processes leading up to and the moment of death itself. Visual artefacts construct a semé of collective, albeit contingent, discourses in which death is understood in culturally significant terms.

Art and popular imagery produced in response to war attest to the resilience of many of our conventional ways of framing death according to this symbolic ‘life’ beyond the grave. One of the more frequently cited examples concerns the stoic confrontation with death by individuals or groups mythologised in accord with the collective mettle of nation.

The discourse of ‘good’ or ‘honourable’ death implicit in such an example would seem to be precluded by the increasingly abstract and totalising nature of warfare in the twentieth century. When Freud penned his seminal 1915 essay, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, he was drawing attention to a periodic crisis in which death could no longer be experienced satisfactorily within culture's available forms[1]. Two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima it was noted in a Melbourne Age editorial that:

“Human conflict ceases to be an affair of personal courage or physical prowess. It now assumes the guise of a terrific unleashing of impersonal forces capable of engulfing whole communities in general destruction.”[2]

While the passage may be read in part as a lament for a bygone age, it is also indicative of the crisis described earlier by Freud in which the nature and scope of death had undergone a fundamental and irrevocable shift.

For the victims of the first atomic bomb, the destruction of their city signified the end of the world. The disruption to normality forced the survivors t0 consider that not only were they going to die, but that the city of Hiroshima, Japan and the rest of the world were also passing away. The confrontation with grotesque and universal death was soon after reinforced by rumours that nothing would ever grow again in Hiroshima and that the effects of radiation poisoning would be passed onto and contaminate any future generation.

Their experience underpins what many writers take to be the paradigm of the nuclear age: a sense of terminalism and a permanent  encounter with irrational, grotesque and profoundly unacceptable death. For the American psycho-historian, Robert J Lifton, the two atomic bombings brought into the world the image “of exterminating ourselves as a species with our own technology.”[3] Though, as he points out, the new image cross-connects with older models for the end of the world, there are important differences. Most importantly, the new concept of nuclear megadeath severs us from what Lifton defines as a basic human need for “symbolic immortality” a “common world” as Hannah Arendt put it, part of a

"universal inner quest for continuous symbolic relationship to what has gone before and what will continue after 0ur finite individual lives.”[4]

The equation of the nuclear explosions with a new and aberrant form of death is a prominent focus in post-war paintings by Arthur Boyd, James Cant, Stella Dilger and Weaver Hawkins. While the initial press coverage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki abstracted the effects of the Bomb by situating its destructive capabilities within an economy of relative scales of efficiencies, the intense light and searing heat produced by the explosion was singled out and popularly referred to as “atomisation”. By contrast to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius at Pompeii, where bodies were preserved in their death throes, Hawkin’s Atomic Power (1947) encodes the mass irradiation of the corporeal body at Hiroshima through the portrayal of shadows and remnants ‘immortalised’ by the flash[5], a motif which persists also in Stella Dilger’s series on nuclear war from the 1950s.

For these artists the experience of death is widened to encompass a more generalised critique of the human condition. The conflagration of the city is synonymous with the destruction of Western civilisation and its values in Boyd's Melbourne Burning (1946-7). A similar motif to the all-engulfing explosion reappears in later anti-nuclear paintings by Boyd including Jonah Outside the City (1976) and Picture on the Wall, Shoalhaven (1979-80). The 1976 painting is an allegory based on the biblical narrative of God's destruction of an unrepentant Nineveh. In Hawkins Atomic Power, the references to the demise of Pompeii in 79AD provide a historical precedent for the destruction of decadent civilisations, while the presence of Adam and Eve post-Fall parallels Oppenheimer’s 1947 statement that the atomic scientists had “known sin.”[6]  Cant’s The Bomb (1945) presents the material facade of the city intact, but, unlike other contemporary works by him in which the working class assume the dominant and shaping presence, here the city is emptied of meaningful life and activity.

Nuclear conflagration - whether real or imagined - captivated the post-war psyche. Endist images of one form or another were developed in response to what many foresaw as the likely outcome of a third world war. In popular representations, the destroyed city of Hiroshima became a metaphor for the destruction of civilisation. The initial blast was equated with the dematerialisation of matter, while radioactive fallout held in it the fear of genetic mutation leading ultimately to biological  extinction. The best-known image of the end of the world was the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ doomsday clock, set in 1947 at seven minutes to midnight.

Some of these images are represented in the previous paintings, for example the suggestion of the suspension of time in Atomic Power and The Bomb. However, the continuing reference to apocalyptic traditions in these paintings (evoked by the ‘eye of God’ in The Bomb or the  trumpeter’s call and rising of the dead in Melbourne Burning) frames the potential for nuclear megadeath through religious metaphor, apparent in the reactions of scientists who witnessed the first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo and persisting in later representations of the Bomb.

In accounts of the 1945 explosions, the destructive/ creative binary was undercut by metaphors of rebirth, of life emanating from death. The nuclear explosion becomes an entry point into a world born again into the atomic age[7]. William Hardy Wilson's post-1945 polemic and architectural drawings embrace the Bomb as the expression of a new civilisation based on “atomic creativity”. Based on photographs of the 1946 Bikini Atoll tests, the stylised form of a mushroom cloud which extends over the sky in his drawing, Monument of Atomic Hope (1949), symbolises the basis of existence - a utopian community emanating from an eternal life force[8].

The alignment of teleological constructs with a radically reconstituted end-time is a feature of Australian art in the 1980s. In Eden Finale, a 1983 painting by Ivor Francis, humanity's unbridled quest for power is shown to culminate in a mass assemblage of people who await their Judgement. However, the paintings and drawings of Peter Booth were most closely identified in Australia with post-holocaust life. From 1984, Booth’s critics focused on aspects of transformation and rejuvenation in his art[9]. Memory Holloway’s reference to the significance of Ash Wednesday 1983, and the poignancy of fire as a “focus for ritual and transformation and as a symbol of rejuvenation in nature” has a corollary in paintings by Ivor Francis of that year. The nuclear cloud formation in Eden Finale is a feature of his bushfire painting I Wandered Lonely as a Child.

The question, indeed, the possibility of transcendence rooted in the linear trajectory of Western metaphysics is raised in Charles Anderson’s The Last Door (1986-7). Visual references to Hiroshima and the Jewish genocide during World War Two are set against the excursion of Dante and Virgil into hell and prophecies of the former’s exile in the Divine Commedia (Canto X). Alluding to George Steiner’s theorisation of post-culture and twentieth century relocation of hell above the ground “Hell made imminent” Anderson poses a conundrum concerning the pursuit and limits of knowledge[10].

Works from Noel Counihan’s graphic oeuvre from the 1950’s project the long-held discourse of the healthy body as homology for the healthy society. Two related poles of his art are registered; the victimised child as an index of the social morass, the fecund female as protector, nurturer, lifegiver. In contrast to Peace Means Life (1959) in which a female nude overpowers the symbol of death, Counihan employs the motif of the defiled body to represent the aberrant social body in Who Will Look this Child in the Face (1950). Separated from the supporting nexus of family or community, it is the child who has seen too much, analogous to Johm Hersey’s description of soldiers at Hiroshima left with weeping, hollow eyesockets[11]. In an unrelated scraperboard illustration from a 1953 publication, the charred and disfigured form of a solitary child is splayed out between capitalist tycoon and hovering mushroom cloud. The figures remain intact, though tainted by disease. Metaphors for plague as an inversion of natural death are continued in Counihan’s 1959 linocut Strontium 90. Invoking the German medieval tradition of death, radioactive fallout envelopes the pregnant woman.

Strontium 90 elicits comparison with the image of nuclear death as a ‘slow torture of disease and disintegration' which gathered momentum in Australia during the 1950’s. The juxtaposition of contamination and fertility symbolism are apparent in Danila Vassilieff’s earlier painting, Hiroshima (c.1952). Here, mutated parents and hybrid offspring linger in front of the crumbling edifice of the city. Both works stand in sharp relief to earlier images of radiation as the elixir of life[12] and prefigure the gross deformation of the body from radiation poisoning in Ivan Durrant’s later sculpture of an aborted foetus, Uranium (1980), or his 1986 series on the facial disfigurement of Chernobyl victims. Contamination as a form of perverse death was given an explicit focus in Ralph Eberlain’s Post-Atomic Age performance at the Mildura Arts Centre in 1976. Eberlain’s ritualised (re)-enactment of the suffering experienced by nuclear war victims, moved through to fire and water, and involved a cathartic cleansing of body and earth.

The connection between contaminated death and exposure to radioactivity had an important local inflexion in the 1950’s. Despite assurances to the contrary,[13] the tests had profound and continuing effects on the land and its inhabitants, issues with which later artists have concerned themselves. Maralinga (1991), a sculpture by Lin Onus, reinscribes an Aboriginal presence at the moment of the blast. Jonathan Kamantjara-Brown disperses ‘radioactive’ sand from the Maralinga site over his acrylic painting of his father’s traditional hunting ground, while Ann Newmarch in a 1981 screenprint collages her research into foetal malformations with a mushroom cloud image of the Maralinga test in 1957. Like other works by Ti Parks, Erica McGilchrist and David Kerr from the 1970’s which deal with environmental pollution and the extinction of life, nuclear death is shown to transcend both spatial and temporal boundaries. Kerr’s Radioactive Leaves performance in 1979 involved leaves printed with poems dropping off trees in Rundle Mall, Adelaide, as a metaphor for the onset of (nuclear) winter. In Park’s Polynesian 100 (1973) one hundred photographs taken in close-up of a polluted St Kilda Beach in Melbourne indicate the days leading up to a French nuclear test in the Pacific. Park’s dispersal of negative fragments and incisions into the photographic surface - his textural pollution of the image - simulate eco-catastrophe brought about through radioactive fallout. Such works, as with the ones discussed earlier, are ultimately concerned with new and uncomforting forms of death in excess - perverse, all-encompassing and irrational.


  1. ^ Sigmund Freud On War, Sex and Neurosis (ed) Sander Katz, (Trans) Joan Riviere et al, Arts and Sciences Press, New York 1947, pp 245-76.
  2. ^ Melbourne Age 8 August 1945.
  3. ^ Robert J Lifton and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons Basic Books, New York 1982, p 57.
  4. ^ Ibid p 64. See also by Lifton The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life Simon and Schuster, New York 1979.
  5. ^ In John Hersey’s well-known account, Japanese physicists investigating the presence of radioactivity noted the discolouration of concrete to a light-reddish tint and the existence of form embossed onto its surface. Hiroshima Penguin, London 1946, pp 97-98.
  6. ^ Quoted in Spencer R Weart Nuclear Fear: A History of Images Harvard University Press 1988, p 113.
  7. ^ Argus 10 September 1945, p 16; Sydney Morning Herald 2 July 1946, p 2.
  8. ^ See Hardy Wilson Atomic Civilisation published by the author, Melbourne, 1949.
  9. ^ cf. Peter Booth - Works on Paper 1963-85 exhibition cat., University of Melbourne 1985; Memory Hallaway ‘Bleak Romantics’ Australian Visions exhibition catalogue, New York 1984, pp 15-16.
  10. ^ George Steiner In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes towards the Re-definition of Culture, Faber and Faber, London 1971, p47.
  11. ^ Hersey op cit.
  12. ^ Exemplified in a 1945 cartoon by Santry for the Daily Telegraph in which early 20th century discourses on the recuperative power of radiotherapy treatment is conflated with the eradication of a deathly cancer (Japan) from the face of the Globe.
  13. ^ Sydney Morning Herald 18 February 1952. With the resumption of tests in South Australia’s Great Sandy Desert the following year, Minister for External Affairs, R.G. Casey, commented: “You can shoot atomic weapons or atomic bombs out here without disturbing anybody.” The Age 16 October 1953.