Sidney Nolan (1917 – 1992)

Having become recognised as Australia’s most internationally celebrated artist, the imaginative and energetic, Sidney Nolan famously coupled his innovative, impulsive and vastly experimental painting style with a deep affinity for Australian folklore to create many of the most iconic Australian images known to art circles worldwide. Highly regarded as a major artist of the 20th century, the work of Sidney Nolan continues to motivate all facets of the arts culture, such as academic and aesthetic thought, discussion and writing, as his images are widely reproduced for the way they capture the essence of the Australian country and the timelessness of historical myths.

Sidney Nolan was born in Melbourne in 1917. Although he received formal art training at the Prahan Technical College and the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, the artist felt compelled to educate himself instead. Greatly influenced by the French Romantic poet, Arthur Rimbaud, Nolan took up painting professionally in 1938. In creating his art, he never relied upon one particular style, technique or tool, but rather experimented greatly with many different methods of application and subjects of inspiration. As an avid traveller, Nolan travelled and studied throughout Europe, America, Mexico, Japan, Greece, Africa and Egypt in his lifetime. The experiences gained from such travels made the artist more open to the varying painting styles practiced around the world, especially abstract and slightly figurative styles.

As a dominant feature of his Irish-Australian temperament, Nolan demonstrated a strong literary streak and passion for music which is made evident in many of his works in both theme and aesthetic appearance. With the culturally-significant stories of the Kelly Gang instilled upon him by his father’s storytelling, Nolan developed a keen romantic interest for the Kelly legends. This became the chief inspiration of many of his works that led the artist and his art to be the subject of critical acclaim.

Replacing his early abstract pieces, Nolan produced a series of naïve paintings based on the theme of the adventures of notorious Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly in 1947. Conscripted into the army during the Second World War in 1942-1945, Nolan served in Dimboola and the Wimmera District of Victoria. After leaving the army, he lived for some time at the home,”Heide” of John and Sunday Reed, the well-known art patrons to whom he was close friends. It was here in 1946 that Nolan’s famous ‘Ned Kelly’ series was first created supposedly guided under the influence of Sunday Reed. This series of iconic images led Nolan to become regarded as the chief instigator of the so-called “Heide Circle” that included such prominent names as Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and Arthur Boyd.

Nolan’s love for these stories from Australian folklore allowed him to present the Kelly Myth as a psychological drama of police versus criminal. His images became renowned for the way they effectively portrayed human relationships and dramatic shifts between gloomy, mysterious themes and vivid creations that became enriching for a appreciative viewer.

Nolan’s painted interpretations of the myths surrounding Ned Kelly were first exhibited as single pictures at the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne with John Reed as President. With his art admired for the way he worked his themes through the creation of unexpected conclusions and a sense of urgency, he attracted the attention of Kenneth Clark during his Australian visit in 1947 who referred to Nolan as, “Australia’s only real painter.” The artist’s reputation quickly spread as the man responsible for changing the face of Australian painting.

After achieving this initial success, Nolan went on to produce works based on the theme of the ‘dead heart’ of the Australian outback, and his own personal interpretations of such historical and legendary figures as Eliza Fraser and the explorers, Burke and Wills. He went on to use his art to capture several themes from separate periods of Australian history creating such significant series of works as Gallipoli, The St Kilda period, Dimboola, Leda and the Swan and The Sonnets.

When creating his own depictions of the Australian outback, Nolan viewed its alien landscape, then worked from aerial photographs, taken from an aeroplane en route to Darwin. As his works came to express his fierce imagination and the feeling of mystery in an unfamiliar territory, Nolan’s images, along with that of renowned Australian painter, Russell Drysdale, helped to pave the way for the development of the Australian Regional School.

By 1962, with the help of numerous successful European exhibitions, Sidney Nolan had gained a wider international reputation than any other Australian painter of his own or previous generation. The peak of the artist’s success came in 1957 when a large retrospective Nolan exhibition was held at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery, London.

John Reed took the Kelly paintings to Paris where they were the subject of a special showing and when his Leda and the Swan series became the event of the London art season, Nolan was described by leading British art critics as one of most outstanding artists of the contemporary period.

Once Nolan’s success as a painter had flourished, the public neglected to recognise him for his significant contributions to other facets of the art world. These varied activities included his work as a poet, tapestry designer, set designer and illustrator for the novels of such notable writers as Patrick White, Alan Moorehead, Colin McInnes and George Johnson.

In 1950 Nolan moved to London where he remained until his death. Leading to a bitter and long-running feud between Nolan and his former friend, writer Patrick White, was Nolan’s mistreatment of his wife, Cynthia. This feud continued until the artist’s death in 1992. Cynthia, the sister of John Reed, became the wife of Nolan after Sunday Reed refused to leave her husband to marry Nolan after the two conducted an open affair. He later married the former wife of John Perceval and member of the famous Boyd artistic dynasty, Mary Boyd.

Leaving behind a succession of great achievements, Nolan acted as an adviser and organiser of Australia’s participation at the Venice Biennale in 1954, was a member of the renowned Angry Peguins Group and knighted for his services to the cause of Australian art.

Today the work of Sidney Nolan is represented in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Tate Gallery, London; The Arts Council of Great Britain Collection; Walker Gallery, Liverpool; The Mr and Mrs John Reed Collection, Melbourne; The University of Western Australia, Perth and other various Australian State Galleries and Regional Galleries.

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