GLENROWAN, 1955

Important Australian Works of Art from the Estate of the late James O. Fairfax AC
Sydney
30 August 2017
18

SIDNEY NOLAN

(1917 – 1992)
GLENROWAN, 1955

Ripolin on composition board

60.5 x 75.5 cm

signed with initial lower right: N
inscribed with date verso: 7-9-55

Estimate: 
$600,000 – 800,000
Provenance

Private collection, United Kingdom, acquired directly from the artist
Sotheby’s, London, 19 June 1996, lot 80
Thomas Agnew and Sons, London
The Estate of the late James O. Fairfax AC, New South Wales and Bridgestar Pty Ltd, Sydney, acquired from the above in 1997

Exhibited

Nolan’s Nolans: A Reputation Reassessed – an exhibition of paintings from the estate of Sir Sidney Nolan, Thomas Agnew and Sons, London, 11 June – 25 July 1997, cat. 51 (label attached verso)

Literature

Rosenthal, T.G., Sidney Nolan, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002, pp. 90 (illus.), 91
Nolan’s Nolans: A Reputation Reassessed – an exhibition of paintings from the estate of Sir Sidney Nolan, exhibition catalogue, Thomas Agnew and Sons, London, cat. 51 (illus.)
Unmasked: Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly 1950 – 1990, exhibition catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2006, p. 61

Catalogue text

The legend of Ned Kelly looms large for all Australians, and it was especially familiar to those who grew up in the first decades of the twentieth century, hearing stories of the Kelly gang’s notorious exploits in north-eastern Victoria, the dramatic siege at Glenrowan, Ned’s eventual capture, trial and sentencing to death, all of which had occurred less than a generation before. Kelly’s famously philosophical last words – ‘Such is life’ – have also gone down in history. The son of a Melbourne tram driver, Sidney Nolan would have been familiar with the Melbourne gaol where Kelly was hanged, and had no doubt seen his startling hand-forged armour fashioned from pieces of farm machinery which was on public display. Nolan also had a more direct connection to the story of Ned Kelly. His grandfather, a policeman in north-eastern Victoria, had been involved in tracking the bushranger and his gang, and Nolan was also familiar with ‘Kelly Country’, having visited relatives who lived in the lower Goulburn valley from a young age, developing a love of the surrounding landscape.

Nolan’s first studies depicting Ned Kelly date to early 1945 and later that year he and Max Harris, a poet and co-editor of the Angry Penguins journal, travelled together to the site of the Kelly gang’s last stand at Glenrowan. Whenever he embarked on a new series Nolan undertook extensive research, immersing himself in the subject. In this case, he not only travelled to significant sites, tracking down Kelly’s younger brother – who perhaps not surprisingly, was not enthusiastic about discussing his infamous sibling with the young artist – but also read everything he could, including first-hand accounts, contemporary newspaper coverage and the Royal Commission Report on the pursuit of Kelly and his gang.1 Nolan’s fascination with the subject was so great at the time that his friend, the artist Albert Tucker, nicknamed him ‘Ned’.2

The resulting first Kelly series – now on permanent display at the National Gallery of Australia – was famously painted on the dining table at Heide,3 the home of John and Sunday Reed, between March 1946 and July 1947. Nolan had met the Reeds in 1938 and in them found informed supporters of modern art who would actively encourage and sustain his early practice. In Nolan, the Reeds found a young protégé, believing strongly in the quality and potential of his work. Deep emotional connections also developed and by the early 1940s Nolan was engaged in an intimate and thoroughly modern relationship with the married couple.4

Nolan’s familiarity with the Kelly story is evident in the series which, when first exhibited in 1948 at the Velasquez Gallery, Melbourne, was captioned with quotations from various sources that provided an historical base for the imagery.5 Although Nolan once said, ‘It is only in myth that the truth about any country can be found’6, it was not simply the true-crime drama and subsequent mythologising of the story that compelled him to paint these pictures. The formal challenge of developing his pictorial language and devising specific forms with which to communicate the story held a particular interest for Nolan: ‘No matter what the story, one hunts the forms with the same persistence. There are after all not so many durable stories in the world but the variety of forms is infinite’.7 The depiction of Kelly’s armoured mask as a severe black square interrupted by a horizontal slit through which his eyes stare out, now an iconic and immediately recognisable symbol, was a case in point. As Nolan explained:

‘I’ve been asked sometimes why … Kelly’s mask is always square … I’ve used it really because I’m a painter, and this latent shape of the square in the painting has been implicit in my earlier abstract paintings … This black square has been hanging around in modern art for quite some years, after Malevich … Max Ernst … a kind of underlying motif that preoccupied a lot of modern artists before I was born, and I’m a much more formal painter and much less anecdotal than is probably realised … the black mask was used by me in a formal sense to establish a framework … for doing a system of paintings … that were united by a given formal motif. The fact that there’s supposed to be a man beneath the mask, and he’s supposed to be Ned Kelly … a hero or a … criminal, in one sense is secondary to my general pursuit of some formal things which are inside my soul’.8

The depiction of the landscape in these paintings was equally important and in some works the figures are almost reduced to being staffage as Nolan’s interest in describing the structure and atmosphere of the country comes to the fore. Conscripted into the Army in 1942, Nolan was posted to Dimboola where he guarded a supply store, but rather than curtailing his artistic development this experience provided him with the opportunity to come to grips with the Australian landscape. Sunday Reed had encouraged Nolan to address the landscape in his work and to seek a modern interpretation of it, and in his paintings of the Wimmera he did just that. Compressing space and distorting perspective in images of dry, open country marked with silos and vernacular rural buildings, he developed a radical and distinctive style that ‘was an intelligent mixture of faux-naif, Cézanne, Van Gogh, chaotic scale, objects devoid of gravity, and the exaggerated shadows of Surrealism, pulled together by the replicated magic of a child’s view of the world; all superbly enhanced by the luminosity of Ripolin enamel paint which he began to use at the beginning of 1943.’9 John Reed identified the significance of the landscape element within the Kelly paintings at the time, writing in the Velasquez Gallery exhibition catalogue that ‘Australia has not been an easy country to paint … we have waited many years for a mature statement to cover both the landscape and man in relation to the landscape [and] in my opinion this has now been achieved … and it is a remarkable achievement indeed, necessitating as it has the most sensitive and profound harmony between symbol, legend and visual impact.’10

18 - SIDNEY NOLAN The Glenrowan siege, 1955.jpg


SIDNEY NOLAN
(1917 – 1992)
The Glenrowan siege, 1955
synthetic polymer paint on hardboard
91.5 x 71.0 cm
courtesy of the Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth
© The Sidney Nolan Trust / Bridgeman Images
 

Nolan embarked on a second major series of Kelly paintings in the mid-1950s, by which time he had settled in England. The theme had lost none of its power during the preceding decade and Nolan produced an inspired series of paintings that showed him as a confident, innovative and highly accomplished artist. The critical response to paintings exhibited at London’s Redfern Gallery in May 1955 was unanimously positive and institutional recognition soon followed with the purchase of After Glenrowan Siege, 1955 by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Two years later, the Tate, London, acquired Glenrowan, 1956 – 57 from Nolan’s first large-scale survey exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain this exhibition subsequently toured the country attracting huge crowds and in conjunction with the Tate acquisition, consolidated Nolan’s standing in England as well as adding to his growing international reputation.11 Paintings from the second series are also represented in numerous important public and private collections in Australia including:Kelly Crossing the Bridge, 1955 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), Ned Kelly, 1955 and Kelly, 1956 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), Kelly with Horse, 1955 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) and After Glenrowan Siege no. 2, 1956 (TarraWarra Museum of Art Collection, Victoria).


In Glenrowan, painted in September 1955, we see Nolan’s reprise on The Glenrowan Siege, 1955 (Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth), a work he had included in the successful Redfern exhibition four months earlier. The Glenrowan Siege depicts Ned Kelly mounted on horseback looking at the burnt-out hotel at Glenrowan, the site of the final battle where several of his party were killed and he was finally apprehended and arrested. Surveying the destruction, Kelly is part of a complex scene, varied in colour and visual detail, in which the presence and activity of humans and the natural environment are equally weighted. The familiar narrative also seems close by. Glenrowan, by comparison, uses a limited palette and minimises pictorial detail, emphasising the landscape in a taut and yet poetic depiction. Dominating the composition, a vast grey sky painted with turbulent brushstrokes and highlights of blue and white, pushes down on the scene below, while a green treed hillside on the right leads the eye into the far distance across bare flat ground. The scene is framed on the left by the ruins of the hotel and in front of a horizontal band of trees, two prone armour-clad figures punctuate the central and far-right foreground. Despite the rifle of the central figure being firmly raised, he appears to have begun to merge with the landscape, the black metal of his mask and armour a stark reminder of his once vital presence. In this painting Nolan is less interested in telling a story, wanting instead to say something about man’s place in the world.

A lyrical expression of what Patrick McCaughey describes as the ‘tragic grandeur’ of the 1950s Kelly paintings, Glenrowan, 1955, presents Kelly as more human and less heroic, a reflection perhaps of the mature artist who admitted that he used the figure of the bushranger as a ‘shorthand’ for his own emotional state. Combining Kelly, one of Nolan’s most important and enduring subjects, with a representation of the landscape, timeless and sublime, this painting is a beautiful and enigmatic statement by one of Australia’s most significant twentieth century artists.

1. Pearce, B., ‘Nolan’s Parallel Universe’ in Pearce, B. (ed.), Sidney Nolan, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2008, p. 32
2. Reeder, W., ‘Nolan at Heide’, Reeder, W. (ed.), The Ned Kelly Paintings: Nolan at Heide 1946-47, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, 1997, p. 11
3. Of the 27 paintings that comprise the first Kelly series, the exception to this is First-class Marksman, 1946 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) that was painted at Stonygrad, the Warrandyte home of Danila Vassilieff. See Pearce, B., op. cit., p. 35. Sunday Reed gifted the paintings made at Heide to the Australian National Gallery, Canberra (now National Gallery of Australia) in 1977.
4. Harding, L. and Morgan, K., Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2015
5. Sayers, A., ‘Kelly’s words, Rousseau, and sunlight’, Reeder, W., op. cit., pp. 18 – 19
6. Nolan, S., quoted in Underhill, N. (ed.), Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his own Words, Viking, Melbourne, 2007, p. 236
7. Pearce, B., op. cit., p. 32
8. ibid.
9. ibid., p. 28
10. Reed, J., ‘Statement’, Reeder, W., op. cit., p. 16
11. Pearce, B., op. cit., p. 245

KIRSTY GRANT
Former Director of Heide Museum of Modern Art
Former Senior Curator, National Gallery of Victoria