An ominous figure on horseback is riding across an empty desert. He is entirely alone – surrounded by nothing but a faint line of scratchy scrub in the distance, while overhead the vast sky is a swift kaleidoscope of scudding clouds. Carrying a rifle, he has an otherworldly, spectral appearance: flat and black, like a silhouette. His head isn’t recognisably human but a lopsided square, with an oblong chink through which we glimpse a snatch of blue and white in the heavens above. This is the 19th-Century outlaw Ned Kelly as imagined by the Australian painter Sidney Nolan.
One of the most famous images in the history of Australian art, the painting belongs to a series of 27 pictures evoking the saga of Kelly’s blood-soaked tussle with the authorities that Nolan executed using enamel paint on hardboard in a fit of inspiration between 1946 and 1947. Four paintings from the cycle have been loaned by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra to the Royal Academy of Arts in London – including the heroic image of Kelly riding solo through the bush that was used as a backdrop in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.They form a high point of the Royal Academy’s compendious new Australia exhibition, which contains more than 200 works of art since 1800. The apparent naivety of Nolan’s paintings belies their sophistication, blending history with myth, a complex understanding of art history, and a visceral sense of the sparse outback landscape.
It is easy to understand why Nolan was drawn to the dramatic story of Kelly, a folk hero often described as Australia’s Jesse James or Robin Hood. The son of an Irish convict, Kelly was a skilled horseman and marksman who lived in Victoria in south-eastern Australia, where he was visited in 1878 by a young policeman who intended to arrest him on charges of horse stealing. A fight broke out, possibly after Constable Fitzpatrick pulled Kelly’s sister Kate onto his knee, and the policeman claimed that he was shot. Wanted for wounding with intent to murder, Kelly fled with his brother Dan and a small gang into the inhospitable wooded hills. They spent the next 20 months on the run, ambushing the policemen who were tracking them, and robbing banks.
After three policemen were killed in a gunfight at Stringybark Creek campsite, the Kelly gang were declared outlaws. Their final clash with the authorities occurred in the town of Glenrowan. After a ferocious shootout in which the outlaws wore homemade helmets and armour bolted together out of ploughshares, Kelly was captured and taken to Melbourne, where he was hanged in the old jail in 1880. The final painting in Nolan’s series depicts Kelly defiant in the dock.
Wild at heart
“Kelly is the naughty boy of Australian history,” explains Anne Gray of the National Gallery of Australia. “He is a hero because he represents the strong streak of rebelliousness against authority that Australians have in their character.” The Australian writer Peter Conrad agrees. “Who wouldn’t identify with a character played by both Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger?” he says, referring to two feature films that dramatise Kelly’s story. “He is the enemy of authority, the underdog, the wild colonial boy.”
While working on the series, Nolan drew extensively upon records such as contemporary newspapers and JJ Kenneally’s The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers. But while his paintings occasionally resemble the storyboard for a film, switching between wide shots of the landscape and close-ups of the principal characters, and focusing on important dramatic moments such as Kelly’s merciful killing of a mortally wounded police sergeant at Stringybark Creek, the cycle is also stranger and more ambitious than a straightforward illustration of real events.
In 1961 Nolan told the writer Colin MacInnes that as well as the bushranger’s own words his paintings were inspired by “Rousseau, and sunlight”. The artist Henri Rousseau was an essential source for Nolan, who borrowed the primitive appearance of the Frenchman’s paintings, and even modelled some of his compositions on well-known canvases by his predecessor. Nolan’s Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly, for instance, reworks Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy. The paintings contain other references to art history too: the emblematic mask that Nolan gave to Kelly recalls the abstract black squares of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich.
But Nolan was never in thrall to the past. He deliberately used Ripolin house paint rather than oils, which he associated with the vanished world of Rembrandt and Cezanne. Moreover, many of his Kelly paintings are moody, muddy and overcast, despite his statement about sunlight. This was a self-conscious contrast with the sun-soaked canvases of the Australian Impressionists such as Tom Roberts, who had pioneered a national school of painting in the late 19th Century. “I wanted to do something which was the opposite of the sunlit bush,” Nolan said in 1980, “which…would be sinister and menacing and would explain something of what was happening to me coming out of the army after the war.”
“Nolan had spent a bit of time in the army during the Second World War,” explains Gray. “But he ran away, so to some extent he identified with Kelly, who was running away from the police. Nolan couldn’t cope with the discipline of being in the army, so the Kelly story appealed to him very much.”
Of course, the success of Nolan’s Kelly series does not derive simply from the personal circumstances of the artist’s life during the Forties. The paintings are popular because they enshrine a national myth for a country that, by European standards, is still young. “They are part of Australia’s national identity,” says Gray. “They capture our sense of independence, our wry sense of humour, our sense of wilfulness, if you like, in a weird land. The imagery of these paintings is so strong.” As Nolan put it himself, shortly after completing the series in 1947: “Kelly was not half rebel, half criminal, he was a rebel reformer. That is why he got into the language – he did something about the world.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph