Sidney Nolan (1917-1992)

Sidney Nolan was one of Australia’s most revered and internationally acclaimed artists. Basing himself in London, Nolan traveled extensively, fostering an extraordinary variety of style and subject in his works.

Born and raised in Melbourne, Nolan attended night school at the National Gallery of Victoria from the age of seventeen, and spent most of his free time in the public library studying European modernists and their works.

During this time, Nolan became friends with arts patrons John and Sunday Reed and joined the Angry Penguins, an avant-garde literary and artistic movement created to advocate surrealism and expressionism.

This new interest had a profound affect on his artistic output, shifting his focus from European abstraction to more figurative works and it was around this time that he became interested in Australian landscapes, creating the legendary Ned Kelly series that is hung in the National Gallery, Canberra. 

Studying the themes of justice, love and freedom, Nolan produced 27 paintings that follow the story of the Kelly family, depicting in one popular painting, The Trial (1947), the courtroom scene of Ned Kelly’s criminal hearing in 1880. Produced from a unique combination of enamel paint on composition board, the piece features Kelly in the centre of the painting, handcuffed, only his eyes visible under his iconic iron suit of armour.

Other works in the series show Nolan’s love of the Australian landscape, each painting featuring a different view of the land and bush, showcasing the beauty and vastness of the country through intense colourings and smooth, flowing textures.

Another iconic Nolan series is the Gallipoli collection, 252 drawings and paintings completed over a 20-year period from 1955-1977 and homed in the Australian War Memorial Collection, Canberra. Nolan was inspired to paint the series after a visit to Gallipoli in 1955 saw him encounter landscapes of a different nature to those he reproduced in Australia. In this series, he combines the real with the imaginary, creating undefined, soft paintings with delicate-coloured textile dye on coated art paper.

Nolan also created a series of soldier portraits as part of the Gallipoli collection, showcasing his immense interest in Australian national identity as well as his desire to express his position on the Gallipoli tragedy. The portraits range from early paintings of soldiers with hope and bravado, finished in bold layers of army green and brown, to later portraits of soldiers with bloodshot eyes and distant expressions, some of whom seem to be experiencing shell shock.

Nolan was knighted in 1981 and his work is represented in the National Gallery of Art, Canberra, the Tate Gallery, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.