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Sir Sydney Nolan: Night and Desert Landscapes

Sir Sidney Nolan, Night and Desert Landscapes and other works

Sir Sidney Nolan was one of Australia's most significant modernist artists, best known for his depictions of the history and mythology of bush life in Australia.  His paintings, often rich in colour, striking in composition and deliberately awkward in technique, represent Australian stories of loss, failure and capture, featuring figures such as the bush-ranging Kelly Gang, shipwreck victim Eliza Fraser and the explorers Burke and Wills. Nolan's iconic paintings of the Kelly Gang contributed to the development of the image of Ned Kelly as a symbol for Australian history and identity.

Born on 22nd April 1917, Carlton, Melbourne, Sidney was the eldest of four children to parents Sidney Henry Nolan and Dora Irene. He attended school  on Brighton Road before moving to Prahran Technical College where he studied drawing and lettering. Following a series of different jobs in the 1930s, Nolan gained employment with the Solaflex Illumination Company known as the Fayrefield Factory (after their best known hat). It was here that Nolan enrolled at the National Gallery School of Design (1934 to 1936) although he rarely attended. Instead, Nolan took inspiration from the nearby library and books on Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and the Surrealists.  From 1938 he was encouraged and supported by art patrons Sunday and John Reed at their house, 'Heide' in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Nolan became one of a group  of avant-garde artists known as the Angry Penguins, named after the radical cultural journal, which included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd. They sought to modernise Australian art and poetry by adopting spontaneous and visionary processes influenced by surrealism.

IN 1940 Nolan held his first solo exhibition in Melbourne and designed sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes production of Icare and became a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society. Conscripted into the army in 1942, Nolan spent two years in the Western and Wimmera districts of Victoria with the 22nd Supply Dept Company guarding stores although he still actively painted. John Olsen later remarked that Nolan's Wimmera works helped to shake up  Following a month's leave to work for Reed and Harris, Nolan failed to return, possibly fearing active service overseas in 1944 and was declared an illegal absentee.  

Discharged in 1946  Nolan returned to Melbourne under the assumed name Robert Murray (or Robin according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography) and started work on his iconic Ned Kelly series. These portrayed the events to the outlaw's demise. In these paintings, Kelly is represented by the the forms of his solid black armour. It was Nolan's most inventive pictorial device, which he superimposes against the Australian landscape in First class marksman in 1946 to suggest how stories and myths shape our meanings of place.

Leaving Melbourne in 1947, Nolan trekked across Queensland and Fraser Island which inspired his second series of paintings based on the Shipwrecked Mrs Eliza Frazer. Nolan travelled a great deal over the next two decades exploring the interior of Australia where he became inspired by the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition. Prompted by Kenneth, Clark, Slade Professor at Oxford, Nolan travelled to Europe and North America but continued to work on his Australian subjects including the Kelly gang, Eliza Frazer and Burke and Wills. Nolan's earlier experience in design came in helpful as he also designed theatre sets  including Samon et Dalila and the abduction from Seraglio in Covent Garden, London. Sidney Nolan was knighted in 1981 and was made an associate member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1987. Nolan was also became a companion of the Order of Australia in 1988.  

Night Desert Landscape

These two prints are likely to have been inspired by images of the Outback with deep ochres and reds and date probably from Nolan's time exploring central Australia. These prints offer some of Nolan's architypal styles. The flora in the landscape as well as the landscape itself simple and hark to Nolan's time in the Angry Birds. This style differs somewhat from Nolan's initial portrayal of the outback as shown below. This image was created by Sidney Nolan in 1950.

Inland Australia Sidney Nolan

The University of Canberra's Art Collection also holds two other works by Sir Sidney Nolan. Mask VIII, created in 1979, follows on from a series of portraits and similar works often inspired by events of the time. The Evolutionary History of Ned Kelly in Primary Colours harks back to Sidney Nolan's time with the Angry Penguins as the book, a limited edition of 50, represents a poet's view of the events towards the end of Ned Kelly's life. The poems by Ryll MacMaster are illustrated with some of  Nolan's  well known images of the outlaw.

Mask VIII Sidney Nolan Evolutionary history of Ned Kelly in Primary Colours