Sidney Nolan 1917-1992, Ned Kelly

Artist: Sidney Nolan 1917-1992   National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia
Title: Ned Kelly   EMu user since 2000
Date: 1946   KE client since 1993
Medium: enamel on composition board    

Sidney Nolan 1917-1992, Ned KellySidney Nolan’s iconic image of the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, dressed in his homemade armour riding out alone into the dry bush landscape beyond is one of the most enduring images in Australian art. In 1946 Nolan embarked upon a series of twenty-seven paintings depicting the main events in the story of the notorious nineteenth-century bushranger and his gang. Set in the north-east high country of Victoria, the sequence includes episodes such as the police officers’ intrusion into the Kelly home and their flirtation with Ned’s sister Kate; the shooting of the police constables at Stringybark Creek; the siege and fire at Glenrowan; ending with the trial by Justice Redmond Barry in Melbourne in which Kelly was sentenced to hang. However, Nolan did not intend his paintings to be a literal depiction of the events. Rather, they are the setting for the artist’s meditations on the universal themes of violence, injustice, love and betrayal. Above all, the Kelly saga was a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape. In Ned Kelly we are confronted with the harsh dry endlessness of the Australian bush, which at times is only sparsely populated with eucalypts and scrub.

The bushranger is depicted ultimately alone, his legend powerfully fused with the landscape itself. Through Nolan’s ingenious painting of a void in the armoured head, where we expect to see Kelly’s eyes or face, we are shown only the infinite sky and cloud formations. It is as though Kelly is riding out into his own oblivion floating above the temporal events of his life and times. As it transpired the mythologies of the outlaw and anti-hero have not only survived but have become an integral part of Australian culture and consciousness.

Acknowledgements: Gift of Sunday Reed 1977