Way outback with the great outlaw
VISUAL ART:Late in 1945 the then young Australian painter Sidney Nolan and the poet and writer Max Harris travelled through “Kelly country”, north of Melbourne, trying to get a sense of the outlaw who had become an iconic figure not alone in Australian history but in Australia’s emergent self-mythology.
They were suitably stone-walled around Glenrowan. The locals regarded them with suspicion and had nothing to say. The local constable regarded Kelly as a common criminal and suggested they leave town. Even Kelly’s younger brother Jim, still living, wouldn’t speak to them.
In this part of the world, the events of the 1870s weren’t yet distant enough to be history. Kelly was only 25 years old when he was executed in 1880, reputedly going to his death with the laconic observation: “Such is life.”
Nolan’s grandfather was among the huge squad of policemen brought in to hunt down the outlaw and his companions. When Kelly’s plan to derail the train carrying the constables was betrayed, the gang was surrounded in a small hotel in Glenrowan.
Nolan expert TG Rosenthal quotes historian Manning Clark on Kelly: “Mad Ireland has fashioned a man who consumed his vast gifts in an insensate war on property and on all the props of bourgeois civilization – the police, the bankers, the squatters, the teachers, the preachers, the railway and the electric telegraph.”
Kelly’s Irish father had been transported and his Irish mother was an immigrant. In Peter Carey’s 2001 Booker prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang, notionally written principally by Kelly himself, his Irishness is emphasised and we feel that his law-breaking is in large part an act of rebellion reflecting and extending the struggle for Irish freedom.
From the unpromising beginning of his visit to “Kelly country”, Nolan went on to fashion what is generally regarded as one of the finest achievements in the history of Australian art and the jewel in the crown of his own oeuvre, his cycle of Ned Kelly paintings. He tackled several other key Australian narratives and themes, including the Burke and Wills expedition, the tragedy of Gallipoli, and the story of Mrs Fraser, but none has quite the magic of the Kelly works.
He returned to Kelly often and even remarked at one stage that he’d like to make a good Ned Kelly painting the day before he died. Several of his repeat visits to the subject produced brilliant results but the core of the cycle was and remains the earliest and most immediate series of paintings, made within a few years of 1945, in Melbourne. These, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, form the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s current, terrific loan exhibition Sidney Nolan: Ned Kelly Series.