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Australia’s Unexpected Record-Breaking Painting Is Charmingly Antipodean

Australians are a cheery lot, only apt to lose their senses of humor when we from the Northern Hemisphere point our their congenital case of good vibes. But looking at the newest painting to hold the title of Australia’s most expensive native artwork, it’s hard not to point out the it’s tongue-and-cheek attitude and what that says about the nation as a whole.

Sure, mom taught us better than to judge an entire people by a single artwork, but just look at this thing. “First Class Marksman” (1946) by popular Aussie surrealist Sidney Nolan is plucked from his renowned “Ned Kelly” series created during his fertile period between 1946 and 47 and dedicated to the legend of the much-beloved Outback outlaw. Painted with an almost childlike sense of play and abandon, Nolan conveyed the rich, natural palette of the outback with a technique heavily influenced by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne anchored by his familiar depiction of Kelly—a nursery-school block figure topped off with his iconic armored helmet and a pair of strangely expressive cartoon eyes. Sure, the facts that Kelly’s arms almost blend into the natural habitat around him, that his eyes are cast on something looming on the horizon (something we can’t see), and other elements of the work say scads about the Australian psyche—but $4.9 million? The price “First Class Marksman” fetched at last week’s Menzies Art Brands auction, which was partially attributed to the fact that the rest of Nolan’s series is property of the National Gallery of Australia, demonstrates that the artist, his subject and the style he used truly strike a chord with our Antipodean friends, suggesting that those traveling to the island continent have a lot to learn from the painting. Alas, “First Class Marksmen” is now in private hands, though the proceeds from the sale will benefit multiple art initiatives in Australia and, of course, one can always visit the rest of the series at the National Galleries—a trip that now seems all the more essential to understanding the Australian character given this recent record evaluation of Nolan’s work.
To see and travel the world through the prism of art, pick up a copy of our unique guidebook, “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters” To visit the “Ned Kelly” series and the “Masterpieces from Paris” exhibition featuring works by Van Gogh, Gauguin and many others, go to:
National Gallery of Australia
Parkes Place
Parkes, Canberra, Australia
+61 2 6240 6411
Image: “First Class Marksman”, Sydney Nolan, 1946, courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

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