The Myth Maker
For many, Sidney Nolan defines modern Australian art. Candice Bruce describes his life of struggle and triumph

Sidney Nolan was an extraordinary individual. A man of remorseless curiosity and multitudinous talents, many thought him as capable of being a writer, poet or composer as an artist. A clever boy from a working-class family of Irish immigrants, Nolan was devouring Blake, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Joyce and Marx at the local library by the time he was 17.

Nolan soon moved beyond his peers at evening classes at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, gravitating to the bohemian circle of artists and intellectuals at Heide, a former dairy farm at Templestowe on the outskirts of Melbourne, where Cambridge-educated solicitor John Reed and his heiress wife Sunday held court. With the Reeds' encouragement, Nolan pushed the boundaries of both his art practice and his studies, experimenting with different materials and thirstily searching for subject matter; with their support, he began to exhibit at the Contemporary Art Society and in other group shows, while becoming increasingly entangled in their complex and unorthodox marriage. During this tumultuous time, Nolan's own marriage foundered, and he left his wife Elizabeth and their infant daughter Amelda.

In 1942, to his immense frustration, he was conscripted into the Australian Army. After accidentally blowing off the tops of the fingers on his left hand, and with active service in New Guinea imminent, Nolan went AWOL in July 1944. He spent the rest of the war living at Heide under an assumed name (he received a dishonourable discharge in 1948) and an intensely intimate relationship with Sunday Reed developed.

In many ways, it was an idyllic life. Although the relationships between everyone there (including Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd, Danila Vassilieff and John Reed's sister Cynthia) were immensely convoluted, Heide offered Nolan an environment in which he could pursue his art without the usual hindrances. Here, in 1946, he immersed himself in the first of his Ned Kelly works, experimenting with pencil, crayon, charcoal and monotype, painting on the dining room table while life and laughter carried on around him. The inspiration for the series had probably begun when, as a child, Nolan heard the tall-but-true tales of his great-grandfather, an Irish migrant from Cork and, at the time of the infamous Kelly gang, a mounted policeman. Nolan spun the myth into works now considered masterpieces of Australian art.

By 1947, however, the situation at Heide had become untenable and Nolan set off for far north Queensland. For the rest of his life he would spend as much of his time (when not furiously working) criss-crossing remote parts of the world in search of subjects to feed his "contumacious inquisitiveness" (as his friend Edmund Capon described it). Several series of works followed: Mrs Fraser, Burke and Wills, Eureka Stockade, Central Australia. As with Ned Kelly, Nolan chose the fallen heroes of Australian history and myth, fatally flawed and rebellious outsiders who secretly desired fame, success and acceptance. Perhaps Nolan was painting from the inside out, exorcising his own ghosts and misdeeds, washing them clean in watercolour, oil and Ripolin.

In 1953, with his second wife Cynthia (née Reed, Sunday's sister-in-law), Nolan set off for London, their base for the rest of their lives. In the next few years, they travelled around the world. They had a knack for making friends, many of them influential, such as Kenneth Clark, Benjamin Britten, Patrick White, Robert Lowell and Stephen Spender.

In 1957, Nolan was given his first large-scale survey show, which toured Britain and was seen by huge crowds. No other Australian artist ever received such overwhelming recognition. By 1960, his work had been purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria and the Tate, among others, and by well-known writers and celebrities, including Agatha Christie, Vincent Price and Rod Steiger.

Back in Australia, the contemporary art world was in the grip of a fierce struggle between figurative artists (centred around Melbourne) and abstract painting (in Sydney). This internecine war would rage through the next decade, but Nolan managed to keep himself above the fray – mainly because he had managed to establish himself, with Clark's help, as the quintessential Australian painter. In many people's minds he was more closely associated with the Melbourne figurative artists, but it is at about this time that his depictions of both people and landscapes broaden; forms are simplified, compositions pared back. They are looser, freer.

Nolan once said that his paintings were "composite impressions": landscapes, animals, people and narratives, based on real observation but, significantly, images altered by the imagination – altered, too perhaps, by emotion. In this way, Eliza Fraser is rendered half-human, half-animal, emerging from the bush debased and barely alive, and the head of an Antarctic explorer, lost in the vastness of the icy continent, dissolves into a puddle of snow and flesh; while another combusts into orange flames as his terrified pinhole eyes disappear into the pigment. There is also humour, of course, for Nolan could be whimsical: giant cockerels traverse the land and horses fly upside down through the sky.

Life was not always easy for Nolan: Cynthia, after years of mental and physical ill-health, took her own life in 1976, and Nolan's decision 18 months later to marry their friend Mary Perceval led to an acrimonious split with his friend, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White. In his last years with Mary, however, Nolan found contentment – and it is from Lady Nolan's estate that the works offered by Bonhams in June have come. In 1981, Sidney Nolan was knighted; in 1988, he was awarded the Order of Australia; and in 1991, he was elected to the Royal Academy

All his life Nolan enjoyed reading poetry, and it was the human condition – the subject of most poetry – that largely concerned him. He knew the Moderns as well as
the Classics, once basing a series of drawings on his close friend Robert Lowell's 1966 poem 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'. Just as Lowell did, Nolan entwined his life with his art, interrogating humankind's frailties and the world's inability to offer "a genuine or permanent satisfaction".

Dr Candice Bruce is an art historian, curator and writer, whose novel The Longing was published in 2012.

Sale: Sir Sidney Nolan: Works from the Estate of Lady Nolan, Part II Sydney
Wednesday 26 June at 7.30pm
Enquiries: Merryn Schriever
+61 2 8412 2222
merryn.schriever@bonhams.com bonhams.com/australia

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