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NOLAN'S NED KELLY
Over Christmas 1964, in his Putney home on the Thames, Nolan again reprised the Ned Kelly subject he had first tackled in the 1940s. The paintings would culminate in his tour de force, Riverbend, a nine-panel polyptych, painted between 17 December 1964 and 14 January 1965. The subject of the picture, and of the series of studies made in preparation, is ostensibly the murder of Constable Scanlon by Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek in the Wombat Ranges of North-eastern Victoria in October 1878. Scanlon was one of three policemen killed by the Kelly Gang of bushrangers in the incident which would culminate in the gang's apprehension two years later at Glenrowan and Kelly's trial and execution. The subject is a second reprise for Nolan of his first Kelly pictures of 1946-47 which had made his reputation at home and abroad as a leading and radical modern painter in post-war Australia.
The 1960s Kelly subjects are as perfect an expression of Nolan in middle-age as the first Kelly series was of Nolan in youth. The hard bright enamel ripolin of the first series gives way to more painterly oil. The prominent figure of Kelly which had dominated the landscape and action now recedes into the bush. In Riverbend, the episodic structure of the first series is replaced by a single frieze in which the narrative is taken over by the river landscape. Three brief moments in the death of Constable Scanlon now barely register in the context of this timeless landscape.
If the 1940s panels with Kelly in high profile were driven by the young Nolan's emotional identification with his subject, the 1960s Kelly pictures are conjured from Nolan's memory and imagination. Away from Australia, it is the landscape which lingers and consumes him ('[Riverbend] is a combination (in my mind) of the Goulborn River, at Shepparton where I spent my boyhood holidays, and the Murray ... I can still evoke in myself, in my studio on the Thames, the river that I saw as a boy. A big, long river, with the sun coming through the leaves. I've never seen it anywhere else ... ', Nolan, interviewed in London, The Listener, 13 Nov. 1969) just as it consumes and stretches beyond his now outlived alter ego: 'In the Riverbend sequence, the figures of Ned Kelly and a policeman are as inconspicuous as St Anthony being tempted in a Breughel landscape. It's a violent enough incident, in which the pursuer is waylaid and killed, but they are diminished by their setting, and treated like small animals camouflaged against larger predators, taking their colour from the pallid trunks of the gum trees. Four panels along, they vanish altogether, like time past, and an immeasurably older past of gums and gunmetal water stretches silently into the future.' (Robert Melville, in the Marlborough May 1968 [Sidney Nolan Recent Work] exhibition catalogue).
The present picture, Gully, was painted on Boxing Day 1964 on the eve of the first dated panel of the first Riverbend polyptych (a second Riverbend would be painted exactly a year later, 30 Dec. 1965-3 Jan. 1966, for which see Christie's (London), 29 Nov. 1993, lot 55). It is part of the series of preliminaries to Riverbend painted by Nolan in December 1964: 'I did a number of such paintings, probably twenty-five, leading up to River Bend' and, as he adds, it is the landscape which has usurped the subject: '[River Bend] ... was the end of a prolonged search of how to get a stereoscopic effect of the bush against a mottled background. In the end, suprisingly enough, I found some solutions in Paul Cézanne's Dans le parc du Château in the National Gallery in London ...' (Sidney Nolan, 21 April 1978 quoted in E. Lynn and S. Nolan, Sidney Nolan -- Australia, Sydney, 1979, p.130).
The 1960s Kelly pictures (and this shift of emphasis from human action to landscape as subject) are enriched conceptually by Nolan's recent African journey, where he observed animals and their camouflage in the landscape, and by his journey to Antarctica at the beginning of 1964, where the landscape overwhelmed him: 'This instantaneous fear at the first glimpse of it, that it would annihilate one ... was overcome straight away by the sense of wonder at it. You know it was so remote, so big, and in a way so beautiful that this swept over any fear you had, and there was a kind of feeling at the back of my mind that if one had to die there, in one way it wouldn't be so bad. It represented a reality stronger than oneself.' (A.B.C. radio broadcast, 23 March 1964)
THE PROPERTY OF A LADY