Sir Sidney Nolan 1917-1992

Artist biography

Australian painter, draughtsman, printmaker and stage designer. Australia's most honoured and internationally acclaimed modern painter, he worked prolifically in a variety of media on themes that often related closely to the story of his own life. Alternating bright moods with blackest drama, reviving formal elements and iconography from previous works and maintaining a spontaneous style by devising new painting techniques.

Nolan was enrolled twice at the National Gallery of Victoria's School of Art (1934 and 1936) while employed as a commercial artist, but he preferred to educate himself in the public library. He wrote poetry and read omnivorously. From 1938 he was encouraged and supported by Sunday and John Reed, patrons and publicists whose house, ‘Heide', became a focus for a close-knit avant-garde group. He was a founder-member of the Contemporary Art Society in that year and subsequently helped produce the radical Reed and Harris journal Angry Penguins.

Nolan was conscripted into the army in 1942. By then he was working almost exclusively with ripolin, a fluid fast-drying, commercial enamel. He began to paint his immediate surroundings. In 1945 Nolan began his first paintings on the theme of Ned Kelly.

From 1953, Nolan began travelling extensively from his new base in London. He returned repeatedly to the Kelly theme, each time in a different technique and mood. He produced a series of Chinese landscapes, mine workers of north-west Australia, Rimbaud's Africa and drawings for the poems of Dante, Shakespeare, Robert Lowell and the fictitious ‘Ern Malley'. In 1987 he was made ARA.

Sidney Nolan: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Paintings from 1947 to 1957 (exh. cat. by K. Clark and C. MacInnes, London, Whitechapel A.G., 1957)
C. MacInnes, K. Clark and B. Robertson: Sidney Nolan (London, 1961)
N. Barber: Conversations with Painters (London, 1964), pp. 83–100
R. Melville: Ned Kelly: 27 Paintings by Sidney Nolan (London, 1964)
E. Lynn: Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery (London, 1967)
Sidney Nolan Retrospective Exhibition: Paintings from 1937 to 1967 (exh. cat., ed. H. Missingham; Sydney, A.G. NSW, 1967)
Sidney Nolan Retrospective Exhibition (exh. cat., ed. K. Clark; Dublin, Royal Dublin Soc., 1973)
M. Gilchrist: Nolan at Lanyon (Canberra, 1976, rev. 3/1985)
E. Lynn: Sidney Nolan: Australia (Sydney, 1979)
R. Haese: Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art (Melbourne, 1981), pp. 1–2, 86, 129–30, 199–200, 265–6, 288–90
G. Fry: Nolan's Gallipoli (Adelaide, 1983)
Sidney Nolan: The City and the Plain (exh. cat. by R. Haese, J. Minchin and P. McCaughey, Melbourne, N.G. Victoria, 1983)
E. Lynn and B. Semler: Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly (Canberra, 1985)
B. Adams: Sidney Nolan: Such Is Life, a Biography (Melbourne, 1987)
J. Clark: Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1937–1987 (exh. cat., Melbourne, N.G. Victoria, 1987, rev. 1987) [comprehensive bibliog. and exhibition listing]


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