As part of a nationwide programme presented by the Sidney Nolan Trust to celebrate Sidney Nolan’s standing as a leading figure of international 20th century art, the exhibition focuses on Nolan’s time living and working in Britain and the critical reception he received there. It brings together works that reveal recurring themes such as Australian history and literature, mythology, and the tragic hero/anti-hero, whilst showing how he incorporated European influences into his Australian subjects.
Sidney Nolan was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1917 and in 1949 attracted the admiration of Sir Kenneth Clark, who encountered Nolan’s paintings on a trip to Australia, declared him a ‘natural painter’ and encouraged him to try his luck in London. Nolan took up the challenge, moved to London in 1953 and thereafter made England his permanent home. He died in London on 28 November 1992.
During his lifetime, Nolan produced an extraordinarily diverse body of work, working in a wide range of materials and experimenting with new techniques. As evidenced in Nolan’s inclusion in Lord Snowden’s influential book ‘Private Views’, under the subtitle ‘the lively world of British art’, within a decade of arriving in the UK, Nolan had established himself as a pivotal figure in the British art world with important exhibitions, including a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1957, under his belt.
The exhibition at Pallant House Gallery will include iconic paintings from the 50s and 60s depicting solitary, often doomed figures in a style that updated landscape painting for a 20th century audience. Featuring ‘mythic’ figures from Australian history such as the famous outlaw Ned Kelly, the tragic explorers Burke and Wills and Mrs Fraser, who was shipwrecked and imprisoned by Aborigines, Nolan explored subjects that were equally rooted in British colonial history and grounded in universal themes such as the nature of heroism. In fact, many of Nolan’s paintings of these subjects were painted in England and these transferences lend the exhibition its title.
Nolan’s first one-man show at the Redfern Gallery in May 1955 showcased a new series of works depicting Ned Kelly. His Irish roots attracted him to Kelly, the villain/hero of the Irish working class, but in true Nolan style there was an additional complexity. His grandfather had been a policeman who was involved in the hunt for the elusive bushman. The somewhat naïve, but powerful, Australian renditions of Kelly became more complex when he rekindled the subject in England.
In 1955, the critic David Sylvester said ‘In these new paintings of Nolan’s, which should establish him among the half-dozen best painters under forty in the world, it is no longer a question of telling Ned Kelly’s story: the picture is a myth’. Robert Melville, writing in 1963, went further stating that ‘Kelly belonged to the company of twentieth century personages which includes Picasso’s Minotaur, Chirico’s mannequins, Ernst’s birdmen, Bacon’s Popes and Giacometti’s walking man’.
Music was vastly important to Nolan and was integral to his creative process. Stravinsky’s infamous ‘The Rite of Spring’ was Nolan’s first foray into set design for the Royal Ballet. Within the exhibition are set designs and costumes from Kenneth Macmillan’s ground-breaking 1962 production, in which the location was shifted from Russia to the Australian outback. Nolan's tribal themed interpretation was considered a triumph and remains the definitive version of the ballet today, using Nolan’s set and costumes, as evidenced by photographs from a 2013 show.