The late, great, Sir Sidney Nolan, one of Australia’s most prominent artists, marks several anniversaries in 2017. This year sees both the centenary year of the artist’s birth and the 25th anniversary of his death. To celebrate the life of the internationally acclaimed artist, immerse yourself in Nolan’s Australia, through the Nolan’s Burke & Wills series.
Burke & Wills
Nolan’s inspiration came from a fateful expedition in 1860, led by Irish explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. Burke and Wills attempted to cross Australia from south to north and died in June 1861, from what appeared to be vitamin deficiencies. After their deaths, several relief expeditions were sent out, which contributed to new geographical findings. All, bar one lost their lives during the expedition.
The story of Burke and Wills has become embedded in Australia’s history. During one of his trips to Central Australia, Nolan wrote in his diary:
‘Read The Burke & Wills Expedition. They are never far from mind when flying over the desert country.’
Nolan began this first part of the series between 1948-1950.
For these paintings, Nolan had drawn upon his first trip to the Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australian outback. He later wrote about these works:
‘There seem to be three elements in the paintings: the actuality of the landscape, which for Australians is intensified to the point of a dream; the strange conjunction of a man on a camel, from which he surveys the landscape as if he is walking on giant stilts; and always the birds, which make everything so vivid’.
In his second series of Burke and Wills, painted between 1961-1962, Nolan focused less on the history and more on the universality of emotion, their vulnerability.
In 1967, he expressed his admiration for the men:
‘I doubt that I will ever forget my emotions when first flying over Central Australia, and realizing how much we painters and poets owe to our predecessors the explorers, with their frail bodies and superb will-power.’
Of course, Nolan’s use of the Australian landscape was not exclusive to the Burke and Wills series. With 27 pictures of an outlawed folk hero, Australia’s equivalent of Robin Hood, The Ned Kelly series proved Nolan’s biggest success. Read more about Nolan’s Ned Kelly series.
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