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Nolan, Sidney - VM - Jonathan Evens

Sidney Nolan: Angel over Ely

On the Edge

by Jonathan Evens

Sidney Nolan was one of Australia's best-known artists from the 20th century, his reputation resting primarily on paintings of Australian landscapes and legends from Australian history, most famously Ned Kelly, the bushranger and outlaw. However, his work is also among the most diverse in modern art, with images in a wide variety of mediums as he worked quickly in series and regularly innovated in his use of materials.

Angel over Ely was painted using ink and enamel on glass and is one of over 130 such paintings Nolan produced between 1948 and 1951. Nolan painted this image after a visit to Ely Cathedral in England during the winter of 1950–51, while staying with his wife Cynthia’s sister in Cambridge. The image represents the moment when religious symbolism returned to his repertoire, inspired by the thought of angels over the cathedral and a subsequent trip to Italy. The subject of floating or flying angels then recurs constantly in his magnificent religious series of 1951/52 set against an Australian outback landscape.

Nolan wrote to fellow artist Albert Tucker in 1951 saying: "Our trip to Europe forced a few vigorous conclusions on me. The outstanding one being that the painters who moved me most (El Greco & Giotto) seemed men primarily of faith. Presumably religious faith. The painting is wonderful in the sense that it is a painting of wonder. Differently from Michelangelo for instance, in the Sistine Chapel, which is certainly wonderful painting, but by no means painting of wonderment.”

Angels first appeared in his work in a series of paintings from 1941 made in response to the ending of his first marriage and his affair with his patron Sunday Reed. In ‘Sidney Nolan: Landscape and Legends, A Retrospective Exhibition 1937-1987,’ art historian Jane Clark described these images as: “Swiftly executed, utterly – almost naively – simple …. sometimes Nolan’s angels swing through the air like acrobats …. Nolan recalls that Rilke …. had a special impact on his imagination at this time – with images of lovers, angels, hands picking flowers and tingling feet.” Religious imagery remained a part of Nolan’s oeuvre with, among others, a series of crucifixes and crucifixions following a second trip to Italy in 1954, crosses (often combined with Holocaust imagery) during the 1960s, particularly as he prepared for a visit to Auschwitz, and Ned Kelly crucifixions in the 1970s. 

In his diary for 1952 Nolan wrote: “What search is at the back of my present series of religious paintings? Does one conceive of Jesus as the ultimate hero? This is an attractive proposition for painting but seems a travesty as far as faith is concerned.” Charles Spencer, writing in Studio International in 1964, sensed a similar ambivalence when he commented that Nolan is “extremely well-read, deeply concerned with spiritual and philosophical issues” and concluded “Whilst not himself religious in any formal sense, Nolan is ever-conscious of the spiritual or communal impulse necessary to great art. When this is absent he feels art is in decay.” Nolan was a voracious reader from a young age, with his reading including the Bible, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Rilke, among many others.

In preparing for ‘Sidney Nolan: Landscape and Legends’ Jane Clark went through most of the works in the exhibition a couple of times with Nolan himself and it was he who indicated that the poetry of Rilke was the prime source of his imagery in 1941. The Rilke poem he pointed to particularly is ‘Annunciation (Words of the Angel)’ which begins:

You are not nearer to God than we,
and we are far at best,
yet through your hands most wonderfully
his glory’s manifest.

Angels appear throughout the Bible as messengers from God. As such, they act separately from God’s people – whether Israel or the Church – often bringing messages that prompt God’s people to action, but also appearing independently of God’s people. Angel over Ely depicts this sense of independent activity beyond that of the Church, through the simple device of depicting the angel flying above and away from the cathedral. In the religious paintings of 1951/52 Nolan creates a similar sense by setting images with floating angels in the outback. Rosemary Crumlin writes in Images of Religion in Australian Art that to enter these religious paintings “demands a leap into the unknown, a forsaking of the familiar territory so often traversed by other painters, a suspension of credibility that is beyond the kind of rationality so valued by traditional theology.”

Nolan’s angel images suggest the ability of God to work beyond or outside the influence of his people, however defined, through other messengers. The extent to which Nolan, although not himself religious in any formal sense, utilises religious imagery suggests something of that same wider influence. The angel in Angel over Ely is on the extreme edge of the image suggesting that that is where renewal may be found.

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Sidney Nolan: Angel Over Ely, 1950, oil on glass, 30.5 x 25.4 cm.

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) is an Australian artist who grew up in a conservative, colonial society in the grips of a savage depression. He became one of the most celebrated and influential modern artists of his generation. Between 1946 and 1947 he painted his first series of works that commented on the life of the Australian bandit Ned Kelly. This was the first chapter of an Epic Poem for Nolan that continued to absorb him until his last painting in 1992. He painted in series like visual poems which are at their most profound when exhibited together – and the poems are complete. He speaks to the world of the imagination, offering a different interpretation of life so that the viewer can engage with the subject emotionally. Sidney Nolan was knighted in 1981 and awarded the Order of Merit in 1983. He was also made a Companion of the Order of Australia, elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a member of The Royal Academy of Arts in the UK.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, England. Through HeartEdge, a network of churches, he encourages congregations to engage with culture, compassion and commerce. He is co-author of ‘The Secret Chord,’ an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. He writes regularly on the Arts for a range of publications and blogs at https://joninbetween.blogspot.com.

ArtWay Visual Meditation November 14, 2021