Sidney Nolan
Biography of Australian Landscape Painter: Ned Kelly Paintings.

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Kelly and Horse (1946)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Sir Sidney Robert Nolan (1917-92)

Contents

Biography
Early Life
Full-time Painter
Early Paintings
Ned Kelly Series
Other Themes
Collections and Exhibitions



Death of Constable Scanlon (1946)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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Fremantle 1 (1970-9)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Biography

The epitome of Australian modern painting, Sir Sidney Robert Nolan is noted for his landscape painting, depicting the arid scenery of the Australian bush, in a variety of styles. But he is best known, for his naive-style history painting series on the bushranger Ned Kelly, whose instantly recognizable square helmet has become an icon of modern art in Australia. Ned Kelly imagery appears in many of Nolan's landscapes, as do several other figures of Australian folklore, including the explorers Burke and Wills, Mrs Eliza Fraser and the convict Bracefell. An omnivorous reader, influenced by the poet Rimbaud, as well as philosophers like Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, and with a love of music but little formal training in fine art, Nolan turned to painting at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of abstract painters like Paul Klee and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Not unlike his Melbourne contemporary Russell Drysdale (1912-81), Nolan's mature style borrows heavily from expressionism and (very occasionally) from surrealism. His use of colour, however, is exceptional, from the vivid splashes in the early Ned Kelly series (1946-7) to the saturated brilliancy of his Fremantle pictures (1970-9). His style is also noted for its fluidity, which he emphasized through the use of enamel house paint (ripolin), polyvinyl acetate and acrylic painting. Unlike Drysdale, he painted extremely fast: producing in the end some 35,000 paintings. An inveterate and extensive traveller, he took numerous trips into the outback, and visited most of Europe, America, Africa, Antarctica and China. From 1955, he lived mainly in England, although he worked in Paris and elsewhere. In addition to painting, he explored printmaking and illustration (for Robert Lowell's poetry) as well as theatrical set design.

Knighted in 1981, Nolan's contribution exceeds that of Drysdale, and other 20th century painters such as Sir William Dobell (1899-1970), Noel Counihan (1913-86), Albert Tucker (1914-99), Arthur Boyd (1920-99), John Perceval (1923-2000) and William Robinson (b.1936), but it follows in the great tradition of the 19th century Heidelberg School of Australian Impressionism (c.1885-1900) and its pioneering representatives like Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Charles Conder (1868-1909).


Burke and Wills Expedition (1948)
Sidney Nolan Trust.

Early Life

Born in Carlton, a suburb of Melbourne, Nolan was the eldest of four children. Unlike Drysdale, whose father was a gentleman landowner, Nolan's father was a tram driver and sometime illegal bookmaker. Nolan first attended the Brighton Road State School and then Brighton Technical School, before enrolling in the Department of Design and Crafts at the Prahran Technical College. From 1933-8, while taking occasional night classes at the National Gallery of Victoria design school, he worked as a commercial artist and sign-writer, producing advertising and marketing displays, using spray paints and other industrial techniques. As well as absorbing the basics of drawing at night-classes, he also spent long periods in the Public Library reading room studying modern artists like Picasso, and other European expressionist painters.

 

 

Full-time Painter

Nolan started as a full-time painter in 1938, the same year in which he met and married his first wife, Elizabeth. In his drive to learn about visual art and establish himself as a painter, he was greatly encouraged by the solicitor and art patron John Reed (1901-81), and his wife Sunday Reed (1905-81), whose house "Heide" (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art) was a meeting-place for young artists. Nolan subsequently helped produce the radical quarterly arts journal Angry Penguins, founded by John Reed and the poet Max Harris (1921-96). The periodical provided a useful focus for a number of progressive young painters who were trying to create a form of Australian avant-garde art free from European dominance. As well as Nolan, they included Counihan, Tucker, Boyd, Perceval, Victor O'Connor and Yosl Bergner. He also joined the Contemporary Art Society, of which John Reed was President.

Early Paintings

Nolan was initially attracted to abstract art - a form he returned to in the last decade of his life - in the manner of Paul Klee (1879-1940). His own minimalist abstract paintings, like Boy and the Moon (1940), consisting of a splash of yellow against a raw blue backdrop, caused some controversy among observers. In addition, using his experience as a commercial artist, he also designed theatrical sets and costumes for Serge Lifar's ballet Icarus, which opened in Sydney, in 1940. In the same year, he held his first solo exhibition at his Melbourne studio.

Nolan was conscripted into the Australian army from 1942 to 1945. During this period, while stationed in the Wimmera area of Victoria, he painted a series of landscapes - depicting the heat and desolate emptiness of the outback - that first signalled his true talent. By then he had largely given up oil painting in favour of ripolin, a fluid and fast-drying type of commercial enamel paint. In July 1944, after hearing that his unit might be sent to Papua New Guinea to fight the Japanese, he went absent without leave, thus becoming a temporary fugitive from the law. This experience quickly proved to be the key to his worldwide success as an artist.

Ned Kelly Series

After the war, Nolan lived for a period at the Reeds' home, outside Melbourne. It was here that he painted the first of his celebrated Ned Kelly pictures, reportedly with advice from Sunday Reed, with whom he was having an affair. Examples from the series - all in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra - include: Ned Kelly (1946); Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek (1946); Death of Constable Scanlon (1946); Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly (1946); Siege at Glenrowan (1946), and The Trial (1947). Influenced by the uncomplicated naive style of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) and Nolan's personal identification with the fugitive outlaw, these Kelly paintings also represented Nolan's desire to create the story of a hero and fighter (a metaphor for mankind) who resists tyranny. Despite the inherent ambiguity in the story - after all, Kelly/mankind is destroyed by the tyranny - the series made Nolan's name. He was to re-use Ned Kelly imagery several times during his career, notably in works like Ned Kelly (1955, Private Collection) and the extraordinary Riverbend I (1964-5, Australian National University Art Collection, Canberra).

During the late 1940s, Nolan travelled widely in north-eastern Victoria, Queensland - including Fraser Island, Cairns and Cape York - as well as Central, Far North and Western Australia. Examples of his work from this period, include: Inland Australia (1950, Tate Gallery, London), Burke and Wills Expedition (1948, Sidney Nolan Trust), and The Abandoned Mine (1948, Private Collection), which was noticed at a Sydney exhibition by the British historian Sir Kenneth Clark, who knew instantly that he had stumbled across one of the best landscape artists in Australia. In 1948, Nolan married John Reed's sister, Cynthia, after Sunday's refusal to leave her husband and marry him.

Other Themes

Nolan used numerous different themes in his painting, including series like: Gallipoli (1956), Leda and the Swan (1959), America (1958-60), Africa (1961-2), Antarctica (1964), New Guinea series (1965), Fremantle (1970-9), Miners (1972), and his Cezanne pastiches (1978). But his most powerful and recurrent imagery was his depiction of Ned Kelly. His simplified motif of Kelly's square-shaped armoured helmet is now an iconic Australian image.

A separate mention should be made in respect of his Fremantle series of paintings, produced in the 1970s. Unmatched for colour by any modern paintings, except perhaps by a handful of Fauvism works, their brilliant colour pigments are nothing short of dazzling. They represent, arguably, Nolan's most creative phase since the 1940s.

In 1950, he won the Dunlop Prize, which facilitated his first visit to Britain and Europe. Following in Drysdale's footsteps, he attracted significant attention in England, where he settled in 1955, although he continued to travel extensively around the globe. He undertook a wide variety of projects involving different types of art, including: engraving and lithography, as well as book illustration (for Robert Lowell's poetry) and theatrical set designs for Stravinsky's opera The Rite of Spring (1962, Royal Opera House, London). In 1963, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to art in Britain. In 1981 he was knighted for services to art, and became a member of the Order of Merit in 1983. In 1988 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). He was also elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts, and a member of the London Royal Academy of Arts.

Collections and Exhibitions

Paintings by Sidney Nolan can be seen in many of the best art museums in Australia, including: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; the Australian War Memorial, Canberra;
Ballarat Fine Art Gallery; Australian National University, Canberra; Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne; and others. Overseas, he is represented in the Tate Gallery, London; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and several other important public collections.

Major retrospectives of Nolan's work have been staged in London's Institute of Contemporary Art (1962), Sydney (1967), Melbourne (1987, 1992), and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (1994).

In 2010, his painting First-Class Marksman (1946) became the most expensive Australian painting in history. The only one of Nolan's first series of 27 Ned Kelly paintings not owned by the National Gallery of Australia, it was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for a record $5.4 million. See also: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 20.

• For biographies of other modern Australian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of 20th century expressionist painting in Australia, see: Homepage.


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