The police hated him and labelled him a troublemaker who made them look like an early version of the keystone cops as he easily outwitted them. For others Kelly was a romantic figure driven into a life of crime borne out of poverty and police persecution.
Almost 66 years later, Sidney Nolan – a distant relative of one of Kelly’s police constables – crowned him Australia’s national hero in an iconic series of paintings in 1946-7, and these are now on show in an exhibition entitled Transferences, at Pallant House, Chichester.
This series covers the key events in Kelly’s criminal life, beginning with him shooting three police constables at Stringybark Creek, the ensuing police chase, though to the final siege, his trial and being sentenced to execution by hanging where his last words were: ‘Such is life!’
What made Ned Kelly so very different and memorable from scores of outlaws? For Nolan it was his words. Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter outlining what led up to his life of crime is both poetic and political. He begins by writing, ‘I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present, past and future’. It also contains comic descriptions of authority figures which Nolan himself found amusing. Secondly, it was the landscape which shapes stories, in this case an Australian Robin Hood – or villainous murderer depending on your cultural point of view – illuminated by the strong, harsh sunlight of the Australian outback. Nolan had himself been stationed in Dimboola town during WWII and later travelled back to the Wimmera region to do some research on Kelly. He went into a local bar there and offered a drink to those who would provide him with anecdotes of Kelly. He drank alone surrounded by silence.
Drawing upon Henri Rousseau’s painting style, Nolan reduces Kelly to the shape of his armour: black, rectangular with an open slot, astride a horse in the burnt out desolation
of the Wimmera outback. It is a fresh, original, naive and playful take on a person who others viewed as ruthless, violent and wild. Nolan was to later state that what pressed him into embarking on the series was indeed the entrenchment of violence and sense of martyrdom.
After WWII, Nolan meditated on his own wartime experiences and late went absent without leave, fleeing the army using the assumed name, Robin Murray. Like Kelly, Nolan could identify with being persecuted and possibly prosecuted with his own metaphorical mask protecting him from the harsh realities of life. Looking out at the Australian outback through his own ‘visor’, he was both part of the landscape yet beyond its remoteness.
past and the avant-garde artist has had tremendous ramifications in Australia. Multitudes of performers dressed as Nolan’s Ned Kelly paraded at the Opening Ceremony at Sydney’s Olympic Games in 2000. The outlaw has been embraced as part of Australian cultural identity, the underdog turned good. Indeed, after Kelly’s trial and execution in 1880, an investigation into Victoria policing methods resulted in dismissals and a change in how suspected criminals were treated.
Nolan’s paintings are often taken as serious statements interweaving another’s narrative with his own using commercial industrial paints in primary school colours. There is less said about the apparently comical appearance of his characters. His Ned Kelly could leap out into the comic strip or find life in animation. But Nolan was known for his sense of the absurd and black humour. As well as Kelly, he selects other renown ‘heroic’ failures such as the soldiers at Gallipoli, and the miners of the Eureka stockade, retelling their stories with jest. They are ordinary people who, in extraordinary circumstances, find the confidence and power to challenge the unchallengeable. Maybe this is an insight into Australian psyche and central to all of this is the challenge of the land itself.
Bryan Robertson’s (1961) once described Nolan’s imagination as, ‘…at once precise and sensible, and extremely fantastic: a tightrope between Cocteau and Groucho Marx, and very Australian’ (quoted in T.G. Rosenthal’s book, Sidney Nolan, Thames & Hudson, 2002).
For someone so fascinated with Australia it is somewhat surprising that in 1953 he moved to Britain, where he became friends with Benjamin Britten. His Kelly series was exhibited in Paris, where the museum’s director Jean Cassou said it was ‘a striking contribution to modern art.’
Works from his second series, from the mid 1950s, were acquired by the Tate Modern, London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One critic said his Kelly belonged in the company of ‘Picasso’s minotaur… and Giacometti’s walking man.’
Nolan died in 1992. He is considered one of Australia’s foremost artists, admired and collected by many, including HRH Prince Philip and the late Queen Mother. He painted Australia as if peeling off a transfer revealing the clear, stark image that lay beneath.
Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain, at the Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 1TJ, 01243 774 557, until June 4, 2017. www.pallant.org.uk