In March 2010, an iconic Australian painting sold at auction for $4.9 million USD , breaking the previous record of the highest price ever paid for an Australian artwork by almost $2 million. The painting was one of the Ned Kelly series created by a bold young Australian artist in the 1940s. His name was Sidney Nolan.
Arguably, Nolan is the most famous Australian artist of all time. The subject of his series of paintings was Australia’s most famous bushranger. Nolan blended modern art with timeless folklore, and gave the raw Australian bush and its legendary characters a place in art history.
Nolan was born in Melbourne in 1917, and studied briefly at the national gallery in Victoria before following his own muse. His Ned Kelly series caused an outcry in the art world — some thought his work was excessively simplified and childish. But they remain among Australia’s greatest artworks.
Today, Australian artists continue to fascinate the international art scene with their unique perspective. Here are a few of those who have gained international recognition.
Born in 1939, Whiteley called art ‘the thrilling spark that beats death’. For him it did not – he died of a heroin overdose in 1992. Whitely was the rock star of Australia’s art world, a bold, uninhibited creative spirit. As a young man, he established an international reputation by winning the Biennale de Paris in 1962, and in 1976 he won Australia’s prestigious Archibald Prize with a self portrait.
In 1973, he exhibited the work that is considered his masterpiece, a multi-paneled voyage from birth to death called Alchemy. He was only 53 when he died, leaving behind a gap in the Australian art world that no one else can fill.
Namatjira was the first Aboriginal artist to find fame and success as a painter of western-style landscapes of the Australian bush. Namatjira was born on a mission near Alice Springs, and learned watercolor from a visiting artist. His first exhibition in 1938 was a major success, and he was feted as a celebrity.
He was granted citizenship of Australia at a time when Aboriginals were not even considered citizens of their own country – they were classed as wards of the state. But the stress of living in two worlds took its toll. With the so-called ‘privilege’ of Australian citizenship, he was allowed to drink alcohol, but in 1958 he was charged with allowing non-citizen Aboriginal members of his family access to alcohol.
One of Australia’s finest artists was imprisoned, and emerged a broken man, unable to put brush to canvas. He died in 1959.
Done often suffers criticism that his work is too popular and too commercial, but there is no denying that he is one of Australia’s most successful modern artists. His bright, vibrant canvasses and designs are iconic and unique in the way in which Done views Australia.
Traditionally it was the muted tones of the Australian bush that attracted artists – but ‘muted’ does not describe Ken Done. As an artist, he fell in love with Sydney Harbour, and keeps his gallery in view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. His ability to capture the color, movement and life of the city marks him out among Australian artists.
His iconic painting of Sydney Harbour at night, completed in 1984, sparkles in a way that no other Australian painting has achieved.
Like America’s Norman Rockwell, Norman Lindsay is an art institution, but without the sentimentality. Lindsay’s work is unashamedly sensuous and sensual, brimming with lissome nudes and filled with amusing characters.
Born in Victoria in 1879, much of his work still seems fresh and modern. His first job was as a caricaturist for a Melbourne newspaper, and he continued to exhibit an uninhibited sense of whimsy throughout his art career. In 1993, his life was irreverently portrayed in a movie with Sam Neill and Elle MacPherson.
The movie was filmed in the house in which Lindsay lived in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. Today the house is a gallery dedicated to Lindsay and his work, attracting visitors year round.
These are just a handful of modern Australian artists whose worked has shocked, delighted and occasionally outraged the world of art. They do not see their task as carrying on time honored traditions, but as breaking the mold, finding new perspectives, and employing a little humor along the way. Sidney Nolan would have been proud of them.