St Kilda, the Melbourne working class suburb in which Sidney Nolan was raised, is perhaps most famous for its iconic amusement park, Luna Park, which stands on the foreshore of Philip Bay. 'Head of a woman, Luna Park' 1940 is one of a series of drawings and paintings based on Luna Park that were completed by Nolan upon his return to his hometown in 1940. They were in part inspired by Nolan's reflections on the urban years of his youth -and created at a time when he was focussed on synthesising everyday Australian experiences with the seminal impact of various European movements and artists.
In October 1939 the artist had attended the Herald exhibition of French and British contemporary art at Melbourne Town Hall. The show featured over 200 works, by Modern masters including Picasso, Cézanne, Léger, Braque, Rousseau, Matisse, van Gogh, Bonnard, Dali, de Chirico and Chagall - which had a profound influence. Nolan's appointment later that year by dancer/choreographer Serge Lifar to design the set and costumes for the ballet Icare (1939-40) highlighted the extent of this influence - yet this artistic project would be cut short by Nolan's enlistment into the Australian Army and posting to the Wimmera district in 1942.
'Head of a woman, Luna Park' clearly recalls Picasso's 1920s portraits of women: its side-on profile, bold line and reduced palette acting in some sense as a homage to this artist, whilst its arabesque and stripped patterning evokes the scaffolding of Luna Park roller coasters as well as the tram tracks of Melbourne. Nolan returned to the subject of St Kilda with its beaches, bathers and parks throughout the early to mid 1940s, but rarely in works as arrestingly strong and raw as 'Head of a woman, Luna Park' 1940. This work forms a very productive companion piece to the Gallery's paintings 'Luna Park' 1941 and 'Giggle Palace' 1945.