I finished my painting of a footballer this morning and called Jim [the gardener at Heide] to have a look at it. He said it looked quite real, almost as if you were there, so it at least passed the critical eye of a specialist.1 Sidney Nolan, 26 August 1946.
Sidney Nolan’s striking image of a footballer was painted at Heide, the home of John and Sunday Reed, on 24 August 1946. Its completion date falls squarely in the middle of the twenty-seven ‘core’ paintings from Nolan’s first and foremost Ned Kelly series, produced from 1 March 1946 to 18 May 1947, and shares similar technical and iconographical concerns.
Using a fluid and fast-drying Ripolin enamel paint, Nolan’s faux-naif figurative paintings of the mid to late 1940s reveal his careful and deliberate search for distinctly Australian imagery. In 1943 Nolan wrote to Joy Hester from Dimboola, articulating his readiness to find appropriate subjects from his immediate surroundings:
If Aussies stick close to what is before their noses we might get somewhere after all, in spite of the famous colonial cultural disadvantages, which will probably be a blessing in disguise anyway.
Returning to Melbourne, Nolan portrayed evocative scenes of contemporary suburban life. Many of these images reflected his own experiences in St Kilda: the baths, Luna Park, Catani Gardens; and his circle of friends and the landscape at Heide. By 1946, however, Nolan became increasingly attracted to Australia’s rich history of convicts, explorers and bushrangers.
Footballer forms a remarkable link between Nolan’s paintings of St Kilda and his Ned Kelly and Eliza Fraser series. The central figure of the Australian Rules fullback attains an iconic presence. His black shorts share a singularity and intensity akin to Ned Kelly’s helmet, while the socks and jumper act as a precursor to the convict stripes of Bracefell, the ultimately renounced saviour of Eliza Fraser.
Nolan originally exhibited Footballer at the Contemporary Art Society in 1946. The painting was subsequently shown in the 1960s and 1970s with the title Full back, St Kilda, which has led to speculation concerning the identification of the subject. Perhaps Nolan’s deliberate choice of a generic title and non-specific colours reinforces the universal appeal of the image which celebrates the special significance that sport plays in shaping Australian identity.
Compelling images of sport by Australia’s greatest artists are extremely rare. Footballer is a unique painting in Nolan’s oeuvre and will be included in the permanent displays of Australian art at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square.
Geoffrey Smith, Curator, Australian Art 19th century to early modernism (in 2002).
1 Sidney Nolan, 26 August 1946.