In the opinion of the late Edmund Capon, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 'Nolan is the best known, the most familiar, name in the history of modern Australian art'. Nolan's first decade as an artist has had more written about it than any other period of his career. The story is of ground-breaking art and a tangled love affair, a story as intriguing and captivating as that of the Bloomsbury Group in England or of Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. Nolan's abstracts, such as Boy and the Moon, often called Moonboy (now in the National Gallery of Australia), scandalised contemporary reviewers and artists; his St Kilda images combined contemporary international iconography with the tawdry imagery of his spent youth; the Wimmera series redefined the depiction of the Australian landscape, the first significant shift since Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts in the 1880s; and, of course, the Ned Kelly series that has made him Australia's most famous artist outside this country. The enduring influence on this pioneering work was the house called Heide and his relationship with its owners, John and Sunday Reed. One of the most famous storeys in Australian art history began as Nolan turned twenty-one, the son of a tram driver, determined to make a name for himself as a radical modern artist. It ended when he was thirty, his Ned Kelly series just completed, with a one-way flight away from the Reeds, from Heide, and ultimately from Australia.
In 1938, when Nolan first met John and Sunday Reed at Heide, he was almost unknown in the art world. After practical training in the Department of Design and Crafts at Prahran Technical College and some classes at the National Gallery School, he developed his skills in the art department at Fayrefield Hats, designing shop displays and advertising. However, his outlook was anything but parochial or commercial, and his objective then was to move to Europe to paint. Nolan's earliest paintings date to the summer of 1936-37, three landscapes painted in the Kiewa Valley (see lot 1) that suggest familiarity with van Gogh and European Post-Impressionism. A few months later, on an infamous trip to Selby near Melbourne, he produced three more, this time influenced, it appears, by Paul Klee and other European contemporaries (see lot 3). After his attempt to stow away aboard a ship failed dismally, he bluffed his way into the office of Sir Keith Murdoch in the hope of being awarded an overseas travel scholarship. He took a folio of experimental abstract drawings (such as lot 5), to which Sir Keith responded well, referring him to the newspaper's art critic Basil Burdett. The latter turned him down for a scholarship but recommended he contact John and Sunday Reed, prominent patrons of contemporary art.
John Reed, a Cambridge-educated lawyer of Tasmanian pastoralist heritage, married cosmopolitan Sunday Baillieu, of the prominent Melbourne family, in 1932. Two years later, they bought the house and land on Melbourne's eastern fringe that became known as Heide and there, they threw their energy into nurturing the arts. When Nolan entered their orbit, a new world of opportunity opened to him: the company and conversation of intellectual and influential friends, access to the Reed's library of art, Literature, and poetry, and, in due course, financial support that allowed him to focus on his art. Other young artists also congregated around the Reeds, including Albert Tucker, John Perceval, Joy Hester, and Arthur Boyd – a group known today as The Angry Penguins. But, as is well known, Nolan's relationship with the Reeds assumed even greater intimacy and complexity when he and Sunday became lovers, apparently with John's knowledge. The affair ended Nolan's marriage to Elizabeth Patterson in 1941, and he moved to Heide, leaving behind his infant daughter, Amelda. Sunday became his muse, collaborator, and studio assistant, while John's influence in art circles and publishing made connections for him and opened doors.
Nolan's art evolved continually after his first meeting with the Reeds, and with their encouragement during 1938-39, he worked assiduously developing abstraction, a rarity in Australia then. He even attracted mild controversy at the recently formed Contemporary Art Society (of which John Reed was vice-president) when he exhibited Head of Rimbaud, an experimental abstract that challenged at least one fellow artist (see lots 5 to 12 for other abstract works dating to 1937-39). From this period emerged a language of repeated symbols associated with his adolescent haunts around St Kilda conflated with images derived from his interpretation of poetry and Literature. These attracted the attention of Serge Lifar, choreographer of the Ballets Russes, then performing in Australia, who, in early 1940, commissioned him to design the sets and costumes for his radical ballet, Icare. Nolan received prominent national press coverage and a standing ovation at the Sydney premiere, and, in a way, this served as his own public debut. (see lots 14-19). Encouraged by the success, he held his first solo exhibition that winter in his Russell Street studio showing works from the previous three years taped or pinned to the shocking pink walls. After Amelda's birth in 1941 and the start of his new relationship, his art took a gentler turn with richly coloured images of angels, girls with flowers, the Garden of Eden, and further development of his Luna Park theme (see lots 23-27). In early 1942 in the weeks before Nolan's military conscription, Sunday turned the debate at Heide to the possibility of reinventing Australian landscape painting. Nolan's attention shifted dramatically, and over two months, he began his first experiments using a flattened perspective and, in some, an almost childlike use of colour to depict the country around Heide and the urban landscape of St Kilda. In an interview decades later, Nolan said he had a soft spot for these works and kept them under his painting table. Following their exhibition in 2017-18, this auction is the first to include a group of them (see lots 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, 31, 32). Experiments with landscapes became Nolan's focus during his military service. The Wimmera series, named after the district in western Victoria, where he was stationed, is regarded as some of his most important work (see lots 37, 39 and 40). The great majority of these works are now in public collections.
Throughout his time in the army, Nolan was in constant contact by letter and telephone with Sunday and John; Sunday visited him when she could, and Heide remained his home when he was on leave. In 1944, fearing that he was about to be sent on active service overseas, Nolan failed to report for duty, assumed a false name, and went into hiding, moving between a friend's loft in Parkville and Heide. During this period as a fugitive, his painting assumed new, anxious energy and rawness seen in works such as Beach, painted in December that year (see lot 41). It also led him in 1945 to start painting the story of another outlaw, Ned Kelly. It is easy to forget that the Kelly series comprises so much more than the iconic group of paintings dating from 1946-47 now hanging at the National Gallery of Australia and that there are other works depicting additional episodes in the narrative (see lots 46 and 47).
The most enigmatic painting in this auction is Figure and Angel (see lot 43), which hung over the mantelpiece at Nolan's home for years. It is dated February 1946, days before Nolan painted the first of the Kelly works now at the National Gallery of Australia. Today we see a vertical painting of a figure that Mary Nolan, his widow, told me was Saint Joseph of Arimathea, walking away from us, leaning on a heavy staff and an angel flying above the rocky landscape. But turn the painting anticlockwise, so it is horizontal, and it becomes evident that Nolan painted over another work soon after its completion, making use of the original work to form new patterns: floral wallpaper can be seen, like that in Sunday's bedroom, and so too can the outline of a bentwood chair, both of which feature in one of the most famous Kelly paintings, Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly (the 1945 version is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria; the larger 1946 version is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia). Does the staff look like the metal barrel of a rifle? And what is the applique square shape under the top paint layer? Further investigation may determine what lies beneath.
The turmoil depicted in the Kelly series mirrored the turmoil in Nolan's life. He was thirty, his relationship with John and Sunday was increasingly fraught, he still had not travelled, nor had he sold a single picture in a commercial exhibition. The last Kelly painting from this era was painted in July 1947, and a few days later, 75 years ago, he left Heide and the Reeds behind forever.
The Estate of Lady Nolan