Sir Sidney Robert Nolan OM, AC (April 22, 1917 – November 28, 1992) was one of the leading artists of Australia of the twentieth century. His work is one of the most diverse and prolific of all modern art. He is best known for his series of paintings on legends of Australian history, the most famous Ned Kelly, the bushranger and outlaw. Nolan’s stylized representation of Kelly’s armor has become an icon of Australian art.
Sidney Nolan was born in Carlton, at that time an inner suburb of the working class of Melbourne, on April 22, 1917. He was the eldest of four brothers. His parents, Sidney (a tram driver) and Dora, were fifth-generation Australians of Irish descent. Nolan later moved with his family to the coastal district of St Kilda. He attended the Brighton Road State School and then the Brighton Technical School and left school at age 14. He enrolled at Prahran Technical College (now part of Swinburne University), Department of Design and Crafts, in a course he had already started part-time by correspondence. From 1933, at the age of 16, he began almost six years of work for Fayrefield Hats, Abbotsford, producing advertising and display stands with spray paints and dyes. Since 1934 he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.
Years in Heide (1941-1947)
Nolan was a close friend of artists John and Sunday Reed, and is considered one of the leading figures of the so-called “Heide Circle” which also includes Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. Boyd and Perceval were members of the artistic family of Boyd focused on “Open Country”, Murrumbeena.
In 1938, he met and married his first wife, Elizabeth, but his marriage soon disbanded due to his growing involvement in Reeds. He joined the Angry Penguins in the 1940s, after defecting from the army during World War II; in fact, he was editor of the magazine Angry Penguins and painted the cover of Ern Malley’s edition, published in June 1944. Ern Malley’s fake poems were seen by Nolan and Sunday Reed as incredibly prophetic when touching their own personal circumstances. Malley’s poems continued to be a real presence for him throughout his life. He painted and drew literally hundreds of Malley’s works and in 1975 he said he was inspired to paint his first Ned Kelly series: “It made me take the risk of putting a completely foreign object on the Australian bush.”
He lived for a time at the house of Reeds, “Heide” on the outskirts of Melbourne (now the Museum of Modern Art Heide). Here he painted the first of his famous and iconic “Ned Kelly” series, reportedly with the Sunday Reed commentary. Nolan also maintained an open relationship with Sunday Reed at this time, although he married John Reed’s sister, Cynthia in 1948, after she refused to leave her husband on Sunday. He had lived in a ménage à trois with The Reeds for several years and although he spoke to them and visited Heide, but once again in their lives, the years together have been seen as a dominant factor in the later life of all of them. .
In November 1976, Cynthia Nolan ended her life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills in a London hotel. In 1978, Nolan married Mary née Boyd (1926-2016), youngest daughter of the Boyd family and previously married to John Perceval.
Nolan painted a wide range of personal interpretations of historical and legendary characters, including explorers Burke and Wills, and Eliza Fraser. Over time, her paintings of Mrs. Fraser became associated with her growing animosity towards Sunday Reed. However, when he first painted on Fraser Island in 1947 after leaving Heide, he remained on friendly terms with the reeds and sent photos of the works for approval. In fact, he gave a painting of Fraser Island to Sunday Reed as a Christmas gift that year.
Probably his most famous work is a series of stylized descriptions of bushranger Ned Kelly in the Australian Outback. Nolan left the famous 1946-47 series of 27 Ned Kellys in “Heide”, when he left her in emotionally charged circumstances. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday Reed, whose affectionate nickname for him was “Robin Redbreast”. Although she once wrote to the Sunday Reed to tell her to take what she wanted, she later demanded that all her works be returned to her. On Sunday, Reed returned another 284 paintings and drawings to Nolan, but she refused to relinquish the remaining 25 Kellys, in part because she considered the works fundamental to the proposed Heide Museum of Modern Art. Possibly also because she collaborated with Nolan in the paintings. Eventually, she delivered them to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977 and this settled the dispute. Nolan’s Ned Kelly series follows the main sequence of Kelly’s story. However, Nolan did not pretend that the series was an authentic representation of these events. On the contrary, these episodes / series became the scene of the artist’s meditations on the universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. The Kelly saga was also a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape in new ways, with the story making sense of the place.
Although the Depression and World War II happened during this period, Nolan decided to concentrate on something more than the people who fight in life. Nolan wanted to create and define episodes of Australian nationalism, to retell the story of a hero. A hero that has now become a metaphor for humanity: the fighter, the victim and the hero, resisting tyranny with a passion for freedom. Nolan recognized that the conceptual image of the black square (Kelly’s helmet and armor) had been part of modern art since the First World War. Nolan simply placed a pair of eyes on Kelly’s helmet that animates her formal form. As in most series, Kelly’s steel protector dominates the composition. Nolan is also concentrated in the interior of Australia and shows a different landscape in almost all the paintings. Nolan’s paintings give the public an idea of the history of Australia, but they also show others in the world how beautiful Australia is. The intensity of the colors of the earth and the shrub together with its smooth texture in general help to create harmony between the legend, the symbol and the visual impact. Kelly is at the center of the painting, but the colors that surround it make it stand out. It’s a very simplistic image, but it highlights that Ned Kelly is an Australian icon.
Nolan never relied on a style or technique, but experimented throughout his life with many different methods of application, and also devised some of his own. Nolan was inspired by children’s art and modernist painting of the early twentieth century. During this time, many younger artists were turning towards abstraction, Nolan remained committed to the figurative potential of painting. In terms of art history, Nolan rediscovered the Australian landscape (Australia has not been an easy country to paint). His love for literature is seen as visually evident in his work. Other key influences were modernist artists such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. Locally, the arrival of the Russian artist Danila Vassilieff to Melbourne, with her simple and direct art, was significant for Nolan.
In his series, Kelly is a metaphor for Nolan himself. Nolan, like the bushranger, was a fugitive from the law. In July 1944, faced with the possibility of being sent to Papua New Guinea in first line service, Nolan was absent without permission. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday Reed, whose affectionate nickname for him was “Robin Redbreast”. Then, when he created this series, he saw himself as the misunderstood hero / artist as the protagonist, Kelly. “Nolan like this figure of Kelly has also been a hero, a victim, a man who armed himself against Australia and who confronted him, conquered him, lost him … personified ambiguity.”
In 1964, Robert Helpmann recruited Nolan to design the ensemble and costumes for his ballet The Display. Set at a country picnic, the piece relates the mating rituals of the lyrebird with the male stance of the Australian males. Nolan created a series of green-blue gauze panels to evoke the filtered light of the forest. A contemporary critic commented that Nolan’s decoration “not only recreates the place where the lyre bird lives, it is the deep, rich, mysterious gloom of an Australian rainforest with the pillars of its ghostly white gums that rise through its depths. “
During the Tin Symphony segment of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games, a crowd of artists wore stylized costumes based on the distinctive Ned Kelly images of Nolan, and a painting of the original Ned Kelly series by Nolan 1946-47 It was shown on a giant screen in the stadium.
In 2010, First-Class Marksman (1946) became the most expensive Australian painting ever sold. Called “the vanished Nolan”, the painting was the only one in Nolan’s first series of 27 paintings by Ned Kelly that does not figure in the National Gallery of Australia collection. It was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for $ 5.4 million.
The cinematography of the 1971 Australian film by English film director Nicolas Roeg, Walkabout, was strongly influenced by Nolan. The hallucination of the little boy of the camel jockeys in the desert was a direct reference to the paintings of Burke and Wills of Nolan.
Two of Nolan’s paintings, The Abandoned Mine (1948) and Ned Kelly (1955) were included in the 2007 book by Quintessence Editions Ltd. Paintings you must see before you die.
The novel of 2011 by the writer from Melbourne, Steven Carroll, Spirit of Progress is inspired by Woman and Tent (1946), by Nolan, who based the painting on Carroll’s eccentric great-aunt. The young artist in the novel, Sam, is based on Nolan. Nolan’s relationship with Sunday Reed provided the framework for Alex Miller’s 2011 novel, Autumn Laing.
Nolan will be the subject of an upcoming film entitled When We Were Modern, directed by Philippe Mora and starring Clayton Watson. This film had not been made since July 2014. Mora Absolutely Modern’s film premiered in 2013. In the 1940s, Heide speaks of modernism, the female muse and the role of sexuality in art.
The work of David Rainey in 2014 “The Ménage at Soria Moria” is a fictitious performance work that explores the relationship between Nolan and the reeds: the heady days of Heide during the 1940s and the lesser-known degeneration in the following 35 years .
Several documentaries about Nolan have been made. This Dreaming, Spinning Thing was commissioned by ABCTV as a companion film to Nolan’s 1967 retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was made with a script by the Australian novelist George Johnston. Kelly Country (1972), directed by Stuart Cooper with commentary by Orson Welles, explores Australia’s landscape and folklore through the images of Nolan. The poems and drawings of Nolan’s Paradise Garden are examined in the film of the same name by British director Jonathan Gili. A 2009 documentary by filmmaker Catherine Hunter, Mask and Memory charts the course of Nolan’s personal life, including his complex relationship with Reed at Heide. Narrated by Judy Davis, the film concludes that the three leading women in Nolan’s life, Sunday Reed, Cynthia Nolan and Mary Nolan, played more important roles in the development of their art than is often discussed.
Among Australian artists, Nolan’s property was identified as the third largest in Australia in 2013, following those of Brett Whiteley and Russell Drysdale.
Sidney Nolan Selected Works – Sidney Nolan Paintings