Many of us are familiar, albeit maybe vaguely, with the story of Ned Kelly. Or we at least remember Heath Ledger playing the title character in the 2003 film. But this portrayal wasn’t the first, nor is it the most well-known depiction of the notorious Australian bushranger and outlaw: not in the art world anyway. That prize belongs to Sidney Nolan (1917–1992), one of Australia’s leading artists of the 20th century. The artist often painted legends from Australian history, but it’s his Ned Kelly series that he’s remembered for. So join us as we discover the history of these paintings and how Nolan nearly lost them all.
As the oldest of four children, Nolan grew up in a strict environment where money was tight. With a patchwork school life, at the age of 16 Nolan began almost six years of work for Fayrefield Hats, Abbotsford, producing advertising and display stands with spray paints and dyes. But he soon began to find himself down a more creative path and from 1934 he attended night classes sporadically at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.
By chance, Nolan was a close friend of art aficionados John and Sunday Reed who were leading figures of the so-called “Heide Circle”. Heide was an old dairy farm the Reeds had purchased in 1934, and they were active supporters and collectors of Australian art and culture. Soon artists flocked to Heide, and it counted some of the best known modernist painters as members. Albert Tucker, Danila Vassilieff, Joy Hester and Nolan among others all stayed and worked there at some point, and the Heide Circle became known for the intertwined personal and professional lives of the people who lived there.
In fact, Nolan’s involvement with the Reeds, and the fact he spent all his time at Heide, ultimately broke up his relationship with his wife Elizabeth, who he had met and married in 1938. Focused on his creative output, Nolan lived at Heide for many years and it was here he painted the first of his famous Ned Kelly paintings in 1946, which would become a series of 27 works.
Nolan reportedly had some input from Sunday Reed when painting these works, who Nolan was having an open affair with at the time, and she would later claim she co-painted some of the works. If the live-in ménage à trois wasn’t enough, the pair’s relationship got more complicated when Nolan married John Reed’s sister, Cynthia, in 1948 after Sunday refused to leave John. The artist left Heide after this but he remained on friendly terms with the Reeds and often sent them photos of his works for their approval.
The artist’s Ned Kelly paintings were left at Heide after an emotional exit from the farm after their affair ended. He wrote to Sunday demanding all his Ned Kelly works back but she instead returned 284 other paintings and drawings and refused to give up the remaining Kellys, partly because she saw the works as fundamental to the proposed Heide Museum of Modern Art. It wasn’t until 1977 that Sunday sought to resolve the dispute, but she didn’t give them back to Nolan directly, rather she gave the paintings to the National Gallery of Australia.
The paintings themselves follow the main sequence of the Kelly story. Although Nolan didn’t see them as authentic depictions, the series became a vehicle for the artist to explore universal themes of injustice, love and betrayal. The paintings also allowed Nolan to breathe new life into the Australian landscape and to retell the story of a hero as a way of bringing Australian nationalism to a wider audience.
Kelly’s helmet and armour had already been depicted as a conceptual image of a black square in art before. For Nolan’s interpretation he simply placed a pair of eyes into Kelly’s helmet, which animated and brought this character to life. This figure dominates most of Nolan’s compositions but he’s careful to highlight the Australian outback in this series with each painting containing a different landscape.
The artist’s intense color palette juxtaposed with the flat appearance of Kelly in the paintings creates a punchy impact felt throughout the series. Nolan never relied on one particular technique or style and instead experimented throughout his career. The artist was inspired by children’s art and modernist paintings from the early 20th century, which can be seen in his Kelly works through his use of rich color and simple forms.
Nolan’s chosen subject is more personal than many realize at first, with the artist using Kelly as a metaphor for himself. Nolan was also a fugitive from the law after going absent without leave when in 1944 he faced the possibility of being sent to Papua New Guinea on front-line duty. He adopted the alias Robin Murray, a name suggested by Sunday, who affectionately called him “Robin Redbreast”. So when Nolan used Kelly as his subject, he also viewed himself as the misunderstood protagonist.
The Ned Kelly series is seen as one of the greatest sequences of Australian paintings of the 20th century. His simplified portrayal of Kelly in his armor has become an iconic Australian image and he also rediscovered the Australian landscape, which many had found too difficult to capture. The paintings have continually been praised by art lovers and critics alike, but it wasn't until 1949, when the series was exhibited at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris, that the museum's director Jean Cassou predicted the legacy they’d have. He called the body of work “a striking contribution to modern art” and that Nolan “creates in us a wonder of something new being born”.
Be sure to check out Nolan’s other works here, and more of the artist's Ned Kelly works below.