Important Australian + International Fine Art
6 May 2015


(1917 - 1992)

synthetic polymer paint and polyvinyl acetate on composition board

123.5 x 91.5 cm

signed with initial lower left: N
signed, dated and inscribed verso: KELLY 1960 / Nolan / To Newcastle / No 90 / 40 x 36 / NOT FOR SALE / MATHIESSENS (sic) GALLERY / 142 NEW BOND ST

$450,000 - 650,000

Matthiesen Gallery, London
Geoff K Gray, Sydney, 27 November 1974, lot 78
Andrew Ivanyi Gallery, Melbourne
Albert Tucker, Melbourne
Sotheby's Australia, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne


Possibly Nolan, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom, 24 March – 6 May 1961 and touring to Sheffield, Leeds, Hull, Bristol, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Wakefield, United Kingdom, 13 May – 28 November 1961
Unmasked: Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly 1950 – 1990, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 11 November 2006 – 4 March 2007, illus. in cat. p12

Catalogue text

As Sidney Nolan's most recognised and celebrated subject, Ned Kelly occupies an important place in the artist's oeuvre.1 The striking image of Kelly in his black suit of armour traversing the outback is inextricably linked with Nolan and Australian art, conjuring the myth and the legend of the infamous outcast and hero.

The first Kelly series from 1946-47 was painted after an excursion around North East Victoria at the beginning of 1946. Captivated by firsthand accounts from his grandfather who was one of the police officers who had hunted the bushranger, Nolan painted with an indefatigable ferocity which would continue throughout his career. In these early works, themes of death and solitude are juxtaposed against a playful sense of violent humour, rendered in an almost childlike manner through the bright colours and the comical depiction of certain characters.2 Nolan resumed the Kelly theme in the 1950s, however there is a perceptible change from the first series, largely signified by the artist's departure from Australia in 1953, as he permanently settled in London. In many of the 1950s works, the bright and luminous light that permeated the earlier series is lost, as the outlaw Kelly is set against a bleak and overcast backdrop, referencing the grey London skies. The earlier faux naiveté has departed and instead, these later works are set against a darker landscape possessing a sort of 'tragic grandeur'.3

The evolution of Kelly continued in 1960, when Nolan produced a small number of important works including Ned Kelly, 1960. Works from this year represent a crucial phase in Nolan's career; his first important retrospective was held in London in 1957 at the Whitechapel Gallery, after which he moved to New York from June 1958 until April 1960, as the recipient of the Commonwealth Harkness Fellowship. The exposure to the vibrant New York art scene prompted another foray into the Kelly series and this exposure, specifically the influence of the New York School and artists like Cy Twombly and Hans Hofmann is embodied in the picture on offer, through the scrawling scribbled lines of sgraffito across the surface and the coloured geometric eyes.

The small group of Kelly works from 1960 herald a new approach in terms of medium and composition. Nolan had previously favoured the use of Ripolin enamel for his earlier Kelly paintings, but the 1960 works were executed in polyvinyl acetate. By working the polyvinyl acetate with a window-washer's squeegee and using a scraping technique, the figure of Kelly, whilst strong and imposing, dissolves into the background through the translucent colours so that the figure amalgamates with the landscape. The ochre tones which emanate from the burning hotel in the background absorb into the foreground, and there is a flatness to the composition further enhanced by the horizontal paint strokes. Whilst fewer in number in comparison to the earlier Kelly suites, the works from 1960 are especially notable as 'they mark an important transition point between the careful elegance of the mid-1950s series to the intensely expressive canvases of the mid-1960s.'4 In this powerful and dynamic painting, Nolan reinterprets the Kelly image and merges the past, present and future.

1. Pearce, B., Sidney Nolan, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, p. 115
2. Rosenthal, T. G., Sidney Nolan, Thames & Hudson, London, 2002, p. 67
3. McCaughey, P., (ed.) Bert & Ned: the correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006, p. 179
4. Smith, D., 'Nolan Through Kelly' in Unmasked: Sidney Nolan & Ned Kelly 1950-1990, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2006, p. 28