Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) Ned Kelly, 1966
Outlaw art

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 51, Summer 2017

Page 26

When Australia's most-famous painter looked at himself, a man in an iron helmet looked back. John McDonald explains Sidney Nolan's obsession with the renegade Ned Kelly

This year is the centenary of the birth of Sir Sidney Robert Nolan OM, AC – 'Sid' to his friends. Nolan (1917-92) was the best-known Australian artist of the 20th century, although opinions differ as to whether he was also the best. Some would argue for landscape painter, Fred Williams; others for Nolan's brother-in-law, Arthur Boyd, or for enfant terrible, Brett Whiteley. Scottish-born Ian Fairweather is another contender.

What throws Nolan's place at the very top of the gum tree into question is his outlandish productivity. He would produce multiple canvasses in week-long painting binges, as the artist rehearsed variations on familiar themes. When the frenzy of creativity passed, Nolan would return to his favourite pastimes of reading, travelling and socialising.

Amid these outpourings, Nolan managed to paint more truly iconic pictures than any other Australian artist, and these are the works by which he must be judged. His famous paintings of the 1940s have always been admired, but as time passes it is becoming apparent that Nolan produced memorable images at every stage of his career.

There are important early works, made during the time he spent with patrons John and Sunday Reed; groundbreaking desert landscapes, from an era when Australian painters rarely ventured into the outback; depictions of the tragic explorers, Burke and Wills; a series based on the story of Leda and the swan; a sequence that conflates the Anzac landings at Gallipoli with the Trojan Wars; and numerous pictures drawn from the realms of mythology and the artist's travels.

Nolan's trademark pieces, however, are those that feature the bushranger, Ned Kelly (1854-80), whose status as an Australian folk hero has never diminished from the day he died on the gallows. Kelly is remembered because of the home-made suit of armour he wore, and because he stood up for poor Irish settlers in their struggle against repressive colonial authorities. For Nolan, also of Irish working-class descent, Kelly offered an obvious point of identification. As a young, ambitious painter in a culturally backward community, he recognised himself as another kind of outlaw.

The original Ned Kelly series, most of which are in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, dates from 1946-47, when Nolan was in his late 20s. In 1961, he told the writer Colin McInnes that Henri Rousseau was the immediate inspiration for these paintings, although in later years he would claim Kelly's helmet had been inspired by the Black Square of Kazimir Malevich.

If the first association seems more plausible than the second, it shows how Nolan's self-mythologising habits escalated as he became increasingly successful. Throughout his life, Nolan was able to charm the people he met and become the kind of person he felt they wanted him to be. This chameleon-like ability enabled the artist to forge friendships with such influential figures as Sir Kenneth Clark, Benjamin Britten, Alistair McAlpine, and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White. He would fall out with White in later years, but then the belligerent author was notorious for burning his friendships.

It was the meeting with Sir Kenneth Clark that proved most crucial to Nolan's career. Visiting Australia in 1949, Clark had been struck by Nolan's Abandoned Mine (1948), which he saw in a temporary exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. The next day he called on Nolan in his studio and was so impressed he promised to secure the artist a show in London. That show, Sidney Nolan: Paintings of Central Australia, took place at the Redfern Gallery in January 1951. Amid enthusiastic reviews, the Tate acquired Inland Australia (1950).

By 1953, Nolan had moved permanently to England, although he did not entirely abandon Australian themes. Four years later, Bryan Robertson organised the first-ever retrospective of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery. It was a time when Britain was in love with Australian art, and Nolan was the leader of the pack.

From the mid-1950s Nolan became an established presence in the British art scene, but he would continue to return to his homeland sporadically. Patrick White unkindly remarked "Australia is the great maternal bub on which he sucks", and there was some truth in this. One can see the depth of Nolan's Australian roots in his lifelong preoccupation with Ned Kelly.

Kelly appears in many different guises, always identifiable by his square black helmet. Even at the end of Nolan's life, he was experimenting with different approaches to painting the outlaw, making images of Kelly with a spray can. In March 2010, one of the early Kelly pictures, First Class Marksman (1946), was sold at auction for AUS$5.4 million (£3.3 million), still a record for an Australian work of art.

The Ned Kelly painting on offer at Bonhams in June's Australian Art sale in Sydney, is given a revealing context by the rather different work shown at Marlborough Galleries in May 1968. The highlight of the show was a nine-panel sequence called Riverbend II (1965-66), one of Nolan's most significant forays into landscape.

The works, now in the collection of Rupert Murdoch's News UK, feature a tiny Kelly bathing in the river, still wearing his helmet. In another nine-panel sequence from that exhibition – Glenrowan (1966), in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh – a giant-sized Kelly lies sprawled over the first three canvases. This time his face is visible beneath the mask, like a vision of the Shroud of Turin. The spots on Kelly's legs are bullet holes from when the troopers brought him down by shooting at his unprotected limbs. Nolan characterised it as a mourning picture, made shortly after the death of his father.

In the catalogue of the Marlborough show, Robert Melville identified "a sense of camouflage" in Nolan's treatment of Kelly in Glenrowan. By contrast, the Ned Kelly picture offered by Bonhams could hardly be clearer. The dark figure of the bushranger sits astride his horse in front of a pale, dry landscape and the white forms of a homestead. He is a lone traveller approaching shelter, a warrior or prophet coming in from the desert.

This Kelly has no face at all. We look through a window in his helmet and see only the sky and a sliver of earth. An early use of this device was in Ned Kelly (1946), from the original Kelly series – the obvious precursor for the 1966 work. In both paintings we are positioned behind Kelly and his horse, gazing at blue sky through the slot in his helmet.

Is this Kelly no more than a ghost? An empty suit of armour? On the contrary – for Nolan, he is a dream of perfect freedom. The sky we see through Kelly's helmet represents the limitless horizon the artist-outlaw would claim for himself. Kelly is the eternal spirit of rebellion Nolan cultivated in his work and life, even as he became Australia's most celebrated artist of all time. Kelly would act as his shadow as Nolan transformed himself from a young avant-gardist in Melbourne into one of the most prolific myth-makers in modern art. Looking back over that association in the year of Nolan's centenary, it seems hardly possible to separate the artist from his creation.

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, and film critic for the Australian Financial Review.

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