A stark-black, ominous figure sits horseback, rifle in hand, riding through the bare bushlands. His oblong armor is hard not to recognise; the semi-clouded azure sky that hangs over the desert visible through the wide slit of the headpiece. Such is Sydney Nolan’s iconic portrayal of the 19th-century bandit: Ned Kelly.
This piece is one of the 26 paintings in Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia as a part of the “Rebels, Radicals and Pathfinders” program.
Having arrived in Australia less than four years ago, and therefore not particularly familiar with the national identity that is Ned Kelly, I felt drawn and obligated to view the exhibit. For those of you that are also unfamiliar with Ned Kelly, he was a bushranger and leader of the Kelly gang, notorious for robberies and police shootings in Victoria. The letter-box-style armor Kelly wore to the final shootout with the police at Glenrowan Inn molded the national symbol. Kelly’s intentions are very much disputed to this day, with some labeling him as Australia’s Robin Hood.
“Kelly articulated a struggle between rich and poor that resonated with many at a time when the Victorian government’s land policies disadvantaged small farmers,” says Dr Amanda Kaladelfos, a history researcher at Griffith University.
Nolan painted the dramatic and momentous saga of Kelly’s story. The bold, poetic, modernism-inspired series became monumental in Australian art history; it shed a fresh outlook not only on Kelly, but also the Australian landscape.
Having viewed the exhibition, it’s not hard to understand why it has gained so much merit. Nolan’s painting style is simple and juvenile-natured, yet extremely powerful and effective. Hung chronologically, the paintings depict an engrossing narrative; starting with whimsical, idyllic landscapes, then moving to dramatic key events like Constable Fitzgerald’s visit to Kate Kelly’s home, the policeman murder at Stringybark Creek, and the final shootout.
However, the collection is not a historically accurate depiction of Kelly’s life, rather a fusion of Nolan’s autobiography and imagination, blended together to illustrate Australia’s culture, landscape and the influence of an individual on the national history. Although, clearly, a very profound concept, I found it to be somehow distracting; my misunderstanding of the scenes in some paintings broke the flow of the story succession. It wasn’t until I did some research that I discovered during the time he started painting this series, Nolan was himself an outlaw, having absconded from the Australian army.
“The paintings are really more about myself and my emotional state than Kelly,” Nolan told a writer in the 1980s.
What’s more intriguing is that Nolan’s grandfather, William Nolan was a policeman involved in hunting Kelly and his gang. Apparently, the artist grew up hearing the tales of Kelly from his very own granddad’s account.
The more research I did, the more I understood Nolan’s work. For instance, I was puzzled how a painting depicting a man in a dress sat on a horse tied in with the Kelly story. However, I later found out that during his residence at the Heide (at the time home to Sunday and John Reed) Nolan would dress up in Sunday’s dresses to disguise from the military police that came looking for him after he fled the army.
A few other pieces appealed to me particularly, including the piece depicting Kate Kelly awkwardly pulled onto the constable’s lap, and the piece in which a police horse is falling off a cliff. Despite generally painting in expressionist-style, large pastel-coloured shapes, Nolan included a great deal of detail in the former painting. This depiction of detail is certainly not incidental and gives the viewer clues of the painting’s deeper significance. One example is the varied portrayal of Kelly’s eyes, or in some cases the absence of them, in the slit of his headpiece—they varied in colour and in some paintings the chink almost appeared as a window, foreshadowing what would happen next.
This exhibit impelled me to go home and research Nolan’s work, as well as the history of Ned Kelly. Perhaps this was one of Nolan’s motives—to spark curiosity in Australia’s very fresh but already somehow moulded history and identity. Whether you’re Australian or not, an art-lover or otherwise, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to see this profoundly engaging collection of work.
Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series is showing at the Art Gallery of WA until November 12.