b. 1917, Melbourne, Australia
Sidney Nolan was born in Carlton, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, in 1917. He attended the Brighton Road State School and then Brighton Technical School, leaving mainstream education aged fourteen. He enrolled with the Department of Design and Crafts at the Prahran Technical College and from the age of sixteen he began almost six years of work for Fayrefield Hats, producing advertising and display stands with spray paints and dyes. From 1934 he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.
Probably his most famous work, and one of the greatest sequences of Australian painting of the twentieth century, is a series of stylised descriptions of the bush ranger Ned Kelly and his pursuits in the Australian Outback. Kelly is considered by some to be merely a cold-blooded killer, while others see him as a folk hero and a symbol of the Australian resistance against the Anglo-Australian ruling class. Painted between 1946 and 1947 Nolan’s twenty-seven simplified depictions of Kelly follow the main structure of the Ned Kelly story, his representations of the outlaw in his armour becoming an iconic Australian image. These works became the setting for the artist’s meditations upon universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. The Kelly narrative was also a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape in new ways, with the story giving meaning to the place.
Nolan never really relied upon a single style or technique, but rather experimented throughout his lifetime with many different methods of application, and also devised some of his own. He was inspired by children’s art and modernist painting of the early 20th century. Although many of his young counterparts were veering towards abstraction, Nolan remained committed to the figurative potential of painting.
Some believe that Kelly is a metaphor for Nolan himself. Nolan, like the bush ranger, was a fugitive of the law for fleeing in 1944 from the possibility of being sent to Papua New Guinea on front-line duty. In creating the series Nolan viewed himself as the misunderstood hero, like the protagonist, Kelly.