Sidney Robert Nolan

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Sidney Robert Nolan

The Australian expressionist painter Sidney Robert Nolan (1917-1992) emerged in the 1940s as a leading figure among the artists then beginning to articulate Australians' newfound awareness of their environment.

Born in Melbourne on April 22, 1917, Sidney Nolan was the son of a tram driver. He attended public schools and at age 14 began studying design at a technical college. His early interest was poetry, and his first job was as a poster painter for a hat company. Nolan began formal training at the National Gallery of Victoria and quickly developed a distinctive figurative manner of painting.

In the late 1930s he began painting outback landscapes and urban scenes, experimenting widely and with great imaginative energy. He exhibited abstract paintings in his first one-man show, in Melbourne in 1940, but soon concentrated on impressionistic renderings of the outback, with outlaws and animals most prominent. Later he moved from this stream-of-consciousness outpouring of personal symbolism to an art in which choice, decision, and will played a larger part.

The Ned Kelly Series

In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Nolan gained public attention in Melbourne with a series of 25 paintings developed around the story of Ned Kelly, an impenitent "Robin Hood," glorified as one of the nation's heroes from colonial days. Nolan had heard first-hand tales of the Kelly gang's exploits from his grandfather, a policeman. In 1948 he moved to Sydney, joining Russell Drysdale at the head of the Sydney Group, an exhibiting society. Nolan painted landscapes and extended the series on Kelly before moving to London in 1955. For the rest of his life he was based in England but traveled worldwide.

Nolan was represented in the Twelve Australian Artists Exhibition, sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain (1953), and at the Venice Biennale in 1954. The Italian government awarded him a scholarship in 1956, and he received a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to the United States in 1958.

By the late 1950s Nolan was credited with having uncovered and enshrined the Australian myth through his works on Ned Kelly. In his poetic and poignant interpretations of the legend, he used a blend of realism and fantasy. Kelly's head was depicted as a black square. His distorted bodies resembled the postwar figurative styles in Europe and America. Critic James Gleeson (1969) underscored Nolan's ability to create "striking and beautiful" visual relationships. While maintaining a simple narrative value, Nolan developed a wide range of style and technique.

Nolan's work showed a continuing concern with the irony of the human situation. In one of the compelling pictures of the Kelly series, Kelly in Spring, he invests the outlaw with the face of a dreamer imprisoned within a black iron frame, while surrounded by tree branches releasing their promise of beauty and fruitfulness.

International Acclaim

Absorption with myth gave ambience and reach as well as a personal focus to Nolan. Working in London, he moved on from Australian colonial subjects to timeless and universal themes drawn from mythology, and he gained international recognition for the powerful imagery of his work. He became Australia's most acclaimed modern painter and was considered by art historian Kenneth Clark to be one of the major artists of the 20th century.

Throughout his career Nolan continued to expand the scope of his subjects, while he maintained the primitivism that marked his earlier work. His highly personal manner of executing a series of paintings was demonstrated with great success in his works on Leda and Prometheus and his recreation of the Australians' courageous storming of the Gallipoli heights during World War I. His work grew in scale and included a huge mural in Melbourne, Paradise Garden (1968-1970), that consisted of 1,320 floral designs in crayon and dyes.

Nolan also excelled at printmaking and designed ballet sets for several productions. In the 1970s and 1980s he visited Australia almost annually and returned to the Kelly theme, each time with different techniques. He remained a prolific artist in his later years, painting a series of Chinese landscapes, another on Australian miners, and drawings for poems by Dante, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and others. He died in London on November 28, 1992.

Further Reading

Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery (1967), by Elwyn Lynn, a review which includes perceptive and illuminating discussions of the relationship between Nolan's technical innovations and his art as a whole; also by Lynn Sidney Nolan: Australia (1979); Sidney Nolan: Such Is Life, a Biography (1987) by B. Adams. □