Sidney Nolans first major retrospective since his death presents an opportunity to unravel something of the artists enigma and understand his achievement throughout an entire career. He is best known for his various series, inspired by landscapes, myths or historical events. His output was prolific, ranging across various techniques and media. This retrospective features critical phases from the St Kilda and Wimmera themes through to the first 'Ned Kelly' series, Australian landscapes and his explorer subjects from around the world, including Australian-inspired abstractions.
Drawing on the significant influence music and poetry had during his life, the exhibitions audio guide and events feature poetry readings, original recordings and personal reflections by Nolan.
Nolan was born in the suburb of Carlton in Melbourne. He was the eldest of four children. His family moved to the bayside Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. Nolan attended the Brighton Road State School and then Brighton Technical School and left school aged 14. He enrolled at the Prahran Technical College, Department of design and crafts, in a course which he had already begun part time by correspondence. “From 1933, at the age of 16, he began almost six years of work for Fayrefield Hats, Abbotsford, producing banner stands
and other advertising display stands with spray paints and dyes.” From 1934 he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.
He was a close friend of the arts patrons John and Sunday Reed, and is regarded as one of the leading figures of the so-called "Heide Circle" that also included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval.
In 1938,he met and married his first wife Elizabeth, but this soon broke up because of his increasing involvement with the Reeds. He joined the Angry Penguins in the 1940s.
After deserting from the army during World War II, Nolan lived for some time at the Reeds' home, "Heide" outside Melbourne (now the Heide Museum of Modern Art). Here he painted the first canvasses in his famous, iconic "Ned Kelly" series, reportedly with input from Sunday Reed. Nolan also conducted an open affair with Sunday Reed at this time although he married John Reed's sister, Cynthia in 1948, after Sunday refused to leave her husband and marry him. In 1978, he married Mary Boyd, a member of the Boyd artistic dynasty and former wife of John Perceval.
He later studied at the Atelier 17, Paris, under the famous S. W. Hayter.
Nolan painted a wide range of personal interpretations of historical and legendary figures, including explorers Burke and Wills, and Eliza Fraser.
Probably his most famous work is a series of stylised descriptions of the bushranger Ned Kelly in the Australian Outback. Nolan left the famous 1946-47 series of 27 Ned Kellys at "Heide", when he left it in emotionally-charged circumstances. Although he once wrote to Sunday Reed to tell her to take what she wanted, he subsequently demanded all his works back. Sunday Reed returned 284 other paintings and drawings to Nolan, but she refused to give up the 25 remaining Kellys, partly because she saw the works as fundamental to the proposed Heide Museum of Modern Art. Possibly also because she collaborated with Nolan on the paintings. Eventually, she gave them to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977 and this resolved the dispute.
Paintings of Dimboola landscapes by Sidney Nolan, who was stationed in the area while on army duty in World War II, can be found in the National Gallery of Victoria.