Sir Sidney Robert Nolan was the eldest of four children born into a working-class family in Carlton, Melbourne.
Nolan attended Brighton Road State School and then Brighton Technical School. Leaving school at 14 he enrolled at the Department of Design and Crafts at Prahan Technical College where he studied lettering and drawing. At 16 and completing his course he painted glass signs and designed layouts for advertising and display stands becoming fascinated with the use of commercial gloss and enamel spray paints and dyes. He attended evening classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.
In 1938 Nolan met and married graphic designer Elizaeth Patterson. They had a daughter but the marriage didn’t last due to his increasing involvement with arts patron John and Sunday reed, who lived at a property, Heide, (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art), outside Melbourne. Nolan decided to become a full-time artist and became one of the leading figures of the so-called Heide Circle which included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyde and John Perceval. Nolan was also a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), established to promote modernist art.
In his early work he was influenced by the abstract artists Paul Kell and Laslo Moholy-Nagy, and his own greatly simplified abstractions, such as Boy and the Moon (1940) – a splash of yellow against a raw blue background incited controversy amongst visitors to his Melbourne studio. Nolan was not only a painter but a story-teller, poet, illustrator of books and designer of sets and costumes for ballet and opera, including the Sydney production of Serge Lifar’s ball Icarus in 1940.
Nolan joined the Citizens Military Forces of the Australian Army in 1942 serving mainly in Victoria, during which time he began to paint the local desolate desert landscapes in a more representational style. He became involved in Reed and Harris’s publishing adventure and provided designs and illustrations for several publications, including Angry Penguins, a publication that sought to modernise Australian art and poetry by adopting direct spontaneous and visionary processes influenced by surrealism. After being granted one months leave in 1944, he working for Reed and Harris fulltime and failed to return to duty. He was declared an illegal absentee.
He returned to Melbourne and adopted the name Robin Murray spending much time at Heide, where he continued to be involved in an open affair with Sunday Reed. In 1945, he began his first depictions of the bushranger Ned Kelly, for which he would later become famous. His other early works included legends such as Eliza Fraser, Burke & Wills, and a famous painting of an Australian Rules footballer, believed to have been based on the late football and cricketing great, Keith Miller.
Nolan left Heide in July 1947 Nolan left Heide in July 1947 and travelled up the East Coast of Australia to Queensland, later moving to Sydney and marrying Cynthia Hansen, John Reed’s sister, in February 1948. He conducted a series of outback tours, including to Central Australia, the far North, and Western Australia, and completed his earliest aerial landscape paintings, capturing the red rawness of Central Australia.
Nolan and his family moved to England in 1951. He continued to paint his native Australian landscapes and completed a further series of Ned Kelly paintings. In 1955, after travelling to the Greek Island of Hydra, he began a series of paintings on the Trojan War and became interested in exploring connections between that war and the Gallipoli campaign. Travel became Nolan’s weapon against creative and personal depression. He had journeyed to Italy in 1954 and travelled there again on an Italian government scholarship (1956), to the United States of America supported by a two-year Commonwealth Fund Harkness fellowship (1958) and to Canberra for a fellowship in the Creative Arts from the Australian National University (1965). He also made trips to Africa (1962), Antarctica (1964) and China (first in 1965), among other places.
He remained involved with the theatre, designing stage sets for productions in London, of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (1962) and Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Delila (1981) and in Australia of The Display, Adelaide (1963) and Il Trovatore, Sydney (1983). He also undertook time-consuming installations, including his Riverbend series (1964–65 and 1965–66), Inferno (1966) and the vast Oceania triptych: Shark (1972–73), Paradise Garden (1968–70) and Snake (1970–72). Despite his creative loyalty to his homeland, he is one of our most famous exports, having had a spectacular international career, largely based in the UK. He died in London on 28 November 1992, aged 75, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Nolan held his first solo exhibition in June 1940 at his studio in a condemned tenement in Russell Street, Melbourne, but it yielded no sales. His first commercial gallery exhibition was held at the Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, in February 1948. In December of the same year, the Reeds exhibited Nolan’s Kelly paintings at Maison de l’Unesco, Paris. They were praised by Jean Cassou, director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, as the work of a true poet and a true painter. From then, he held numerous exhibitions and was the subject of three major retrospective exhibitions – 1957 (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London), 1967 (Art Gallery of New South Wales and national tour) and 1987 (National Gallery of Victoria and national tour). Also in 1987, the year of Nolan’s 70th birthday, Brian Adams published his biography Sidney Nolan: Such is Life and released a film of the same name.
Nolan is one of Australia’s most internationally recognised and awarded artists. He was knighted in 1981 and was also appointed CBE (1963), OM (1983), and AC (1988). He was awarded honorary doctorates by the Australian National University (1968), the University of London (1971), the University of Leeds (1974), and the University of Sydney (1977). He was made an honorary fellow of the University of York (1971); a fellow of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1971); a life member of the National Gallery of Victoria (1983); and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York (1985); and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1991). He won numerous awards and travel scholarships.
Sidney Nolan’s work brought Australian myths, legends, personalities and locations to life. Nolan’s series of iconic paintings of the bush-ranger Ned Kelly in a square helmet became his motif. The iconic image was a recurring theme throughout his distinguished career, becoming such a part of Australian culture that the Kelly head was a major element of the spectacular Sydney 2000 Olympics opening.
Of his extraordinary images of inland Australia, Nolan said: I wanted to deal ironically with the cliché of the ‘dead heart’; I wanted to know the true nature of the ‘otherness’ I had been born into. It was not a European thing. I wanted to paint the great purity and implacability of the landscape. I wanted a visual form of the ‘otherness’ of the thing not seen.
Nolan was not the typical shy artist, but battled with being in the public eye. In 1965, at the height of his international reputation, he said: “Art is a dialogue between the artist inside himself and the exterior world. On the other hand, art as a career is a public exposure. These two points of view must be synchronised. A public image is not to be received without circumspection.” The underlying tension is evident in Nolan’s last self-portrait, Myself, portraying him trapped behind a shadow of the image that made him famous – the Kelly head.
Throughout his painting career it was the exploration of materials, techniques, scale, and, above all, the challenge of placing an object in front of a background, that obsessed him. Nolan’s painting style is noted for its fluidity, which he emphasized by applying unusual mediums—such as ripolin (an enamel house paint) and polyvinyl acetate—to masonite, glass, paper or canvas.
Nolan’s works are widely held in Collections throughout Australia and internationally, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the Australian War Memorial, the Tate Gallery, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia, the UK and the world.
Reference : Sir Sidney Nolan, Nancy D. H. Underhill, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2016, Encyclopedia Britannica, updated 23 November 2020 Biography, Art Gallery of NSW, National Gallery of Victoria, 2013