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Sidney Nolan: Painting the Outback

13th June 2022.

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) was perhaps the most important Australian artist of the 20th century, recognised throughout the world for his stylised depictions of Australian bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly, which have become iconic in the story of Australian Art History.

Nolan was born in Melbourne, into a conservative, colonial society in the grips of a major depression. Whilst his family worked for the Melbourne Tram Company, they ran an illegal bookmakers to make ends meet, but despite this Nolan spent time living on streets and beaches.

Determined to break free of the strictures of his upbringing in a poor but conservative society, Nolan spent innumerable hours in the State Library of Victoria; whilst his body could not travel, his mind could. He read voraciously, particularly on poetry and modern art, becoming infatuated with Picasso, Miro and Klee and French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who would prove hugely influential in his later work.

Whilst Nolan had some formal art schooling, he was largely self-taught, which allowed him the freedom to create his own visual language, his own way of expressing his inner emotional world in an experimental but resolutely modern style at once both poetic and naïve.

Nolan painted the human condition, translated through the trials and tribulations of figures from Australian history and mythology and set against the Australian Outback. His first paintings of Ned Kelly in his homemade armour, which Nolan reduced to simple black squares with a rectangular slit for the eyes, were painted in 1946-7. In these works, the character of the Outback is as central as that of Kelly; the intensity of its heat, colour and light reflecting the intensity of emotion Nolan sought to portray. Indeed, the power of the Outback was profoundly expressed in a series of paintings illustrating a devastating drought that gripped the country. Twisted, desiccated carcases form the focal point in a parched, powder-dry landscape.

He was part of a circle of Avant Garde artists and poets in Australia, but from the 1950s travelled widely as he had so longed to do as a young man. He settled in England, later buying an estate in the Welsh Borders which remains in Trust, dedicated to arts education.

A selection of four works by Nolan are offered in Tennants’ Modern & Contemporary Art Sale on 25th June. The works were gifted to the vendor, who worked for Nolan’s widow, Mary, for many years. On offer is ‘Greece’, a mixed-media depiction of a sailing dinghy off the Grecian coast, painted whilst Nolan was staying on the island of Hydra with Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift (estimate: £1,000-2,000), a lithograph ‘Ned Kelly I’ (estimate: £300-500), and two etchings depicting Ned Kelly and a cow carcass in the Outback (estimate: £300-500 each).

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