Sidney Nolan
'Ned Kelly' 1946
Gift of Sunday Reed 1977

‘We rob their banks
We thin their ranks
And ask no thanks
For what we do.’
-Historical record

‘This is Kelly the defiant. I put Kelly on top of the horse in a particularly orderly manner. I wanted an air of perfect authority. It looks simple but I wanted the maximum feeling of space, so the cloud appears through the aperture in the mask.’ - Sidney Nolan

In 1961, Sidney Nolan told the writer Colin MacInnes that the main ingredients of the ‘Kelly’ series were ‘Kelly’s own words, and Rousseau, and sunlight’. [1] This characteristically pithy one-liner sums up the engagement with Australian history, Australian landscape and European modern art that led Nolan to create these iconic paintings.

Kelly’s own words: At the first exhibition of the 27 Kelly paintings (at the obscure Velasquez Gallery in Melbourne in 1948), the catalogue included quotations taken from a variety of historical sources. Kelly’s own words, the most celebrated record of which is the quasi-political, quasi-personal recital of grievance known as the ‘Jerilderie Letter’, fascinated Nolan with their blend of poetry and political engagement. Throughout his life Nolan was interested in literature and the visual arts and in many of his works sought to bring verbal images and pictures together.

Despite the fact that this historical grounding accompanied the paintings when they were first exhibited, the series was not intended as a literal illustration of the story. It appears rather as a meditation on the circumstances of Nolan’s own life at the time and on the way in which the actions of one person could ‘change the world’. Coming as they did from an immediately post-war milieu, Nolan’s paintings had a particular and personal urgency. Originally, too, some of the paintings were reflections of a world of violence (although Nolan remarked that after a number of decades the paintings did not look particularly violent any more).

The series weaves biography and autobiography together, but we can only guess at the details of the autobiographical dimension. The narrative is strongly present, beginning with a scene-setting painting which shows an empty landscape lit by an eerie light from the horizon. The paintings take us through the main events of the story of Ned Kelly and his gang – the shooting of police constables at Stringybark Creek, the ensuing police chase, the activities of the police spy Aaron Sherrit, the siege of the hotel at Glenrowan and the trial which ended in a sentence of hanging for Ned Kelly.

Rousseau: The overwhelming impression of the style of the Kelly paintings is of an uncomplicated, wilfully naïve execution, a quality Nolan admired in the art of the 19th-century painter and hero of the 20th century’s avant-garde, Henri Rousseau. Nolan’s admiration of Rousseau shows how determined he was to be a modern painter and how he admired French culture. As a young artist, Nolan was passionate about everything French, from the poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud to the paintings of Cézanne and Picasso. He was fortunate enough to have access to the works of these artists in the magazines and catalogues in the up-to-the-minute library of his friends John and Sunday Reed in their home at Heide.

Yet Nolan was no slavish imitator. He developed his own style based on a principle of direct vision and intuitive execution. There were several ingredients in this approach. Nolan employed the simple bright colours and runniness of commercial house-painters’ enamel. He produced his paintings quickly, often in a single session. Furthermore, he kept the forms big and bold, particularly the black form of Kelly that constantly asserts itself across the planes of the paintings’ pictorial spaces.

Sunlight: Nolan insisted that the Kelly paintings were more than simply a series illustrating the events of Australia’s most famous bushranging story. In 1948, he wrote that the Kelly saga was ‘a story arising out of the bush and ending in the bush’. An understanding of landscape was a motivation: ‘I find the desire to paint the landscape involves a wish to hear more of the stories that take place in the landscape … which persist in the memory, to find expression in such household sayings as “game as Ned Kelly”’. [2] The landscape is therefore a crucial part of the Kelly paintings; the story gives meaning to the place.

The Ned Kelly paintings entered the collection in 1977. Their exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shortly after Nolan’s death, cemented their position as one of the greatest sequences of Australian painting of the 20th century. As a result of their familiarity, Nolan’s invention of an original and starkly simplified image for Ned Kelly – as a slotted black square atop a horse – has become a part of the shared iconography of Australia.

Andrew Sayers

Article source: Australian Art in the National Gallery of Australia, Edited by Anne Gray, Published 2002.

[1] Sidney Nolan quoted in Kenneth Clark et al, Sidney Nolan, London: Thames and Hudson, 1961, p.30.

[2] Sidney Nolan, ‘The “Kelly” paintings by Sidney Nolan’ in The Australian Artist, vol.1, pt.4, July 1948, p.20.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002

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