Sidney Nolan “Ned Kelly”
“Many of my best subjects have resulted from looking back on past journeys.”
– Sidney Nolan
If you’ve ever visited the chain restaurant Outback Steakhouse, while you were waiting for your Bloomin’ Onion to be served, you may have noticed some unusual decor on the walls.
The location I went to featured prints of an unusual but notable Australian artist, Sir Sidney Nolan (April 22, 1917 – November 28, 1992). Although he spent much of his career in England, Nolan’s recurrent subject matter was the land and people of Down Under.
Starting in the 1940s, Nolan was a member of an Australian avant-garde art movement called Angry Penguins, dedicated to creating modern art with a uniquely Australian identity. It was around this time Nolan began creating his best known works, a stylized recounting of the true life adventures of the bushranging outlaw Ned Kelly (1854-1880).
Sidney Nolan “The Death of Constable Scanlon”
Ned Kelly was a horse thief and bandit who was involved in the murder of several policeman in the Outback frontier area where he wandered. A romanticized rebel/Robin Hood reputation has grown up around him, but what really launched him into legendary status was his final confrontation with the law in 1880. Kelly donned a homemade suit of armor for the gunfight, but ultimately was wounded in the arms and legs and captured. He was executed by hanging.
Ned Kelly’s actual suit of homemade armor
Painter Sidney Nolan invokes his alter ego
Nolan used an iconic figure of Kelly in a series of paintings, referencing Kelly’s armor by rendering his hero as a simplified cubistic figure in expressive, loosely painted Australian landscapes. The works become an existential mediation on the individual pursing his destiny, as well as showing narrative scenes from Kelly’s troubled existence.
Sidney Nolan “Kelly and His Armor”
Sidney Nolan “Kelly”
Nolan created other series also dedicated to Australian history as well, including some wonderful works on the doomed expedition of the explorers Burke and Wills, who used imported camels to travel across the Outback. Only one member of their expedition survived.
Sidney Nolan “Burke and Wills Expedition”
Sidney Nolan “Gray Sick”
(Gray was a member of the expedition who became so ill he was tied to his camel so he wouldn’t fall off)
Sidney Nolan “Inland Australia”
There was a time history paintings were recognized as the highest form of genre painting, epic in scope, ambition and execution. Modern art largely turned away from such efforts, preferring design problems and self contained art-for-art’s-sake experiments.
Losing the excitement and connectivity of story telling in art was a huge miscalculation. As art undergoes Remodernist renewal, story telling will become an important element once more, another powerful means of engaging the audience.
It’s a great contrast to the muddleheaded flailings of Postmodernist practitioners, who can only jumble unconnected references into their distracted, self-absorbed theoretical models. They rigidly conform to predetermined narratives. This is an inferior experience to the surprising and rich unfolding of the actual, which is what story telling describes.
I often invoke an eerie nostalgia for the past in my paintings, for I know in time I too will be joining that infinite regression. History-telling or showing the stories of what happened in the past-is a wise way to understand the present, and to prepare for the future.
Richard Bledsoe “We are Both So Beautiful” acrylic on canvas 24″ x 18″
Sidney Nolan understood how art can shape a national identity, with all the benefits such an identity can provide to the people. And he knew the way he could best make his contribution:
“Painting is an extension of man’s means of communication. As such, it’s pure, difficult, and wonderful.”