The artist in thrall to the outlaw Ned Kelly

NED Kelly rides again at the Irish Museum of Modern Art at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, where Sidney Nolan’s celebrated paintings of the outlaw are on loan until January.

“The significance of these paintings to Australian cultural heritage is massive, and the National Gallery of Australia has been extremely generous in lending the works to Ireland,” says Georgie Thompson, assistant curator of exhibitions in IMMA.

Nolan was born in 1917 in Melbourne, and studied at The National Gallery of Victoria School of Art. “He was conscripted into the army in 1942 and began to paint his immediate surroundings in the Australian outback,” Thompson says.

“However, he went absent-without-leave from the army in 1944. He went to stay with John and Sunday Reed in their home. They were great supporters of the arts — what was contemporary art, I suppose. He stayed with them for quite a number of years. Apparently, he painted the Ned Kelly series at the kitchen table with plenty of people around him. He worked very quickly.”

Like Kelly, Nolan was of Irish descent. The Kelly tales impacted on Nolan as a child. Nolan painted this series in the 1940s, nearly 70 years after Kelly’s death, but the legend was still alive.

The Ned Kelly paintings are true to life and close to Nolan’s story. He said in 1984 that the narrative was autobiographical. He researched Kelly’s belongings in museums and wrote bylines to his titles, such as: ‘That is what the fireplace looked like, and the objects on the mantelshelf were really there’.

“Nolan was sixth-generation Australian but with Irish ancestry,” says Thompson. “His grandfather had been a police sergeant in the party pursuing Ned Kelly in Beachworth, in Victoria, in the 1870s. He, like plenty of Australians, grew up on the stories of Ned Kelly. The interesting thing is that he did write captions for the artworks himself, when they were shown in 1948. He obviously had access to official documents about police conduct during the time that they were chasing the Kelly Gang. Nolan seems to have used that information, with information from contemporary newspapers, along with JJ Kenneally’s book from the 1920s.”

Ned Kelly and the other characters are stylised. The famous tin-can helmet worn by Kelly creates a graphic representation of the hero, the visor framing two, round, cartoonish eyeballs. Often on horseback, the figure is silhouetted against the Australian outback. As a bush-ranger, Kelly was a vehicle for Nolan to explore the outback. The Heidelberg School, a group of painters active in the 1940s, was credited as the first to capture the Australian landscape. But Nolan dismissed their impressionistic style as superficial and unrealistic. He endeavoured to capture the mood, light and season with precision, and sometimes used photographs as tools.

IMMA owns six paintings by Nolan. They make up the Wild Geese Series, which the artist donated to the museum in 1991. It is on display alongside the Ned Kelly Series.

Nolan bought land in Co Clare in 1986, and in 1989 spent time in Ireland painting this series. The revolutionary theme in the Ned Kelly Series was picked up in Nolan’s investigation of the 18th century Irish exiles.

“The Wild Geese Series is inspired by the Irish soldiers who fled the country after the failed Jacobite wars of the 1720s,” says Thompson. “Nolan represented them as latter-day exiles, such as James Joyce and Ernest Shackleton. When you look at the paintings, you can definitely see likenesses to Joyce. Nolan depicts himself in the paintings, as well as Captain Moses Nolan, who was executed in the 1720s for recruiting Irish soldiers to the Jacobite cause. There are definite parallels with the death of Ned Kelly. Kelly was sentenced to death by hanging as well.”

* Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series is on display at IMMA until Jan 27.


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