Though most known for the Ned Kelly series of paintings, Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli paintings are among his best work. Again, its an Australian theme and the myth is very strong since it represented recent history. Every boy who grew up in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century knew about Gallipoli. It was the country’s first foreign war, the first test of its men in battle. Some tens of thousands of young soldiers were sent to the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 to take part in the attempt of the Allies to force the Dardanelles and throw Turkey out of the war. They failed, but they failed magnificently; and today every township in Australia has its Gallipoli monument. Nolan’s generation grew up in a world where the older men were forever talking about Gallipoli.
Gallipoli was the symbol of the country’s courage and of its coming of age, and it was a perfect subject for Nolan: the heroic legend, the young Australian soldier on the classical battlefield of the Hellenspot, the linking of the young country with the ancient civilization of Greece. Nolan evoked all this with almost a religious depth of feeling, of dedication and of poetry; the very emotions with which the soldiers actually fought. His painting of the light-horseman with the feathers flying from his hat is a classical hero translated to the modern age, and the lonely, ghostly bodies floating on the Aegean shore are part of a universal suffering. The figures of his naked soldiers remind one of the athletes on an attic vase.
Nolan was a connection between the old world and the new; he was born just in time to have a whiff of the early pioneering days when earthen roads came into the heart of the city and the farmer, returning from market, rode off with his horse and buggy across an endless plain. Nolan saw the old isolation dying and done with forever. Yet all the changes since his 1930′s youth would be confused and meaningless without a tradition; the continuous instinct that reaches out of the past and into the future.