Menzies Art Brands



Sidney Nolan might have been the most imaginative and self-confident artist of his generation, but it is doubtful that even he, as he first marked out the slotted black box of Kellys helmet, could have foreseen the impact that gesture would have on the Australian imagination and psyche. He would have laughed out loud to see the dancing Kellys at the opening of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, knowing that without explanation or subtext, the audience immediately recognised the iconic form and where it had come from. Similarly, the tram drivers son from St Kilda would not have imagined himself as the senior statesman of Australian art, knight of the realm and member of the Order of Merit, the highest and rarest of imperial honours. That journey was a complex one and Nolan took the Kelly story with him on his long artistic road.

Nolans early works were influenced by European modernism, especially the quirky drawings and collages of Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Lszl Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), but closer to home he was drawn to the energetic and spontaneous paintings of Russian migr artist Danila Vassilieff (1897-1958). It was at Vassilieffs eccentric hand-hewn home and studio Stonygrad that Nolan first made his image of Ned Kelly and his crude square helmet. He had known the Kelly story well from the tales told by his grandfather, a policeman working at the time of the Kelly arrest. It has been suggested that Nolan was fired by a particular painting of Vassileffs and transposed the Russians expos of domestic shenanigans at Warrandyte for the tale of Kate Kelly and Constable Fitzpatrick 1 The story of how Nolan, back at the more comfortable surroundings of John and Sunday Reeds dining room at Heide, created a 26 work series on the life and times of Ned Kelly, has become one of the enduring modern legends in Australian art. For the next four decades Nolan regularly revisited the story, each time finding new emphases, media and variations to keep the Kelly legend, and his personal take upon it, at the forefront of the Australian imagination.

The original Kelly series was far from being a literal illustration of the outlaws tale. It might have followed the basic historical narrative, but always overlaid with imaginary twists and transpositions. The most fundamental was the landscapes in which many of the paintings are set. While Nolan was familiar with the country around Glenrowan, the site of Kellys last stand, and the mountains of North East Victoria, he chose to depict the landscape many hundreds of kilometres to the west, the Wimmera district where hed spent much of his three years service in the Australian Army. It was the flat wheat country around Dimboola that had opened his eyes, and imagination, to the landscape as a subject for painting and he used it as the backdrop to many of Kellys exploits.

The first series, and the many others which followed over the years, gave Nolan the chance to experiment with every medium available. The first series was painted in Ripolin, a commercial enamel which, as well as having richly pigmented colours, had an oily fluidity which he could push around his smooth hardboard panels with ease and spontaneity. In the early fifties Nolan was introduced to the new medium polyvinyl acetate by Albert Tucker (1914-1999), who in turn had learned of it from the Italian artist, Alberto Burri (1915-1995). While Burri and Tucker used PVA as a way of adhering disparate materials to surfaces, Nolan exploited its translucence and capacity to be smeared and scraped across a smooth ground. Nolan never wanted anything to get in the way of his spontaneous expression and whether working on large scale, or more intimate sizes like the present work, he was able to make the most convincing of images with the sparest of means. A few sketched-in lines, the ubiquitous helmet and a tiny stick figure horse are all that is needed to portray the ghost-like Kelly, appearing out of the mists of time to again tug at our imaginations.


1. The Wolf in Australian Art, produced and directed by Richard Moore, Ronin Films, 2015

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