(centre) Ned Kelly, day before he was hanged 1880.
(bottom) Kelly home, Glenrowan
That changed in 1878 when the Kelly Gang’s low level crimes changed to bank robberies, hostage taking, derailing trains and killing of policemen sent to capture them. In response to these killings the Victorian parliament did two things. Firstly it passed the Felons' Apprehension Act which outlawed the gang and invited anyone to shoot them. There was no need for an arrest and trial. Secondly they posted a £8000 reward in Feb 1879 for the capture of the gang!
Since the Kelly Gang’s rampage of 1878-80, Ned Kelly has been described by many, especially the police and courts, as a criminal, thief and killer. For fewer people, he was seen as an oppressed, impoverished family man who railed against colonial authority and colonial injustice.
Ned Kelly, 1946
by Sidney Nolan
In the arts, we find the same divide. Anderson Brown's Literary Blog responded to Peter Carey’s novel: “The Irish identity of Kelly and his family, and the economic and legal injustices to which poor transported Irish were subjected by the colonial authorities, are among the real subjects of the book. Ned is a stubborn enough force of nature to hold our sympathy without heroics”. Stephanie Trigg at humanities researcher was working on Ned Kelly’s associations with Robin Hood. She felt the preservation of Kelly’s last boot spoke volumes about the iconic status of Kelly, and the mystique and veneration in which he is held. It looked very much like a saint's relic. Bartlett’s Blog suggests that the Kelly saga was a story which showed how one injustice can breed another, and how systemic oppression often begets violent responses. According to Bartlett, this is a lesson we still seem not to have learned 130 years later.
Over the decades the change in community perceptions about Ned Kelly has been slow but constant. Now I am suggesting that Sidney Nolan’s most famous art work, a series of stylised descriptions of Ned Kelly in the Australian Outback 1946-7, played a very important role in the change. I am not interested in issues of connoisseurship here; just in Nolan’s iconography.
Nolan’s Ned Kelly series followed the main sequence of the Kelly story. However Nolan did not intend the series to be an authentic history of these events. Rather the series became the setting for the artist’s thinking about family, loyalty, injustice and betrayal. Because the tragic Depression and WW2 had just finished, Nolan had a challenge. He wanted to create and define episodes in Australian nationalism, to retell the story of a hero. I would not have chosen Ned Kelly as a national hero, but Nolan’s Kelly became a man who resisted tyranny and pursued freedom at any cost.
by Sidney Nolan
The iconography was simple and powerful. In Ned Kelly 1946, the simple geometry of Kelly’s armour suited modern art. Nolan just placed a pair of eyes into Kelly’s helmet which added life to its austere shape. The Death of Constable Scanlon 1946, now in the National Gallery Canberra, showed a somersaulting police trooper, a startled horse and a tent. The Trial 1947 depicting Ned Kelly in the court room, surrounded by the judge, police and jury.
Nolan clearly wanted to give his audience an insight into Australian history. His series created an artificially simplistic picture but either fostered or created the view that Ned Kelly, in his abstracted armour, was an Australian icon.
Above all, he considered that it was ‘a story arising out of the bush and ending in the bush’ eg matthewham discussed the complete fusion of Kelly with his horse, something I had not thought of myself. Remember that the Kelly story did not belong in Australian cities. Instead it was a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape with new eyes, with the story creating a special awareness of NE Victoria’s landscape.
Nolan himself acknowledged that his depiction of Kelly, with a black, square and impenetrable mask was difficult. But for some reason, he supposed to do with the nature of the century or with modern art, it worked out well. Nolan realised this was a story he could put into the landscape by investing the human psyche in a very simple shape.
by Sidney Nolan
Heide in Melbourne was where Nolan painted the first canvasses in his Ned Kelly series. Eventually, in 1977, the series was given to the National Gallery of Australia. Heide Museum of Modern Art also has examples of Nolan's work.