Way outback with the great outlaw

Wed, Nov 7, 2012, 00:00

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.

When he came to take on the theme of Kelly, Nolan had experimented tentatively with several diverse forays into modernist painting. The experience probably served him well with Kelly but the ingenuity of his approach lies in the way he discarded any notion of modernist trickery or sophistication and, in stylistic terms, goes ruthlessly for a populist, folkloric visual idiom. The outlaw, in his homemade armour plate, is a comic-book silhouette. There is a playful, cartoonish quality to the imagery even as it relates a story of violence, suffering, desperation and treachery.

No country for new men

If that was all there was to the paintings, though, they wouldn’t merit their high reputation. What really sets them apart, and makes them great, specifically Australian works, is that Nolan managed to do something amazing – he managed to figure out a way to paint the Australian landscape. As John Reed wrote when the paintings were exhibited in 1948: “Australia has not been an easy country to paint.”

The vastness and extremity of the landscape, its sheer otherness, set it quite apart. As with North America, you couldn’t just apply the conventions of European landscape painting to it and expect them to work. The challenge was to come up with a way of getting, in paint, a place that was quite different, even alien.

This Nolan manages to do quite brilliantly. As Reed wrote subsequently, we can look at the Kelly paintings as “pure landscapes” in which we find “all those strange qualities – the apparent monotony, the apparent harshness, the apparent rejection of man – which have so disturbed Australians, and to some extent alienated them from their own land . . . but at the same time Nolan has penetrated beneath this first vision and revealed the deep, soft beauty of the bush, with all its subtleties”.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. For all these reasons, and more, Sidney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Series is essential viewing.

idney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Series is at the New Galleries, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Royal Hospital, Kilmainham until January 27th

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