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Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly at the Royal Academy

October 27, 2013
Sidney Nolan, Ned Kelly, 1946. Enamel on composition board, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977

Sidney Nolan, Ned Kelly, 1946. Enamel on composition board, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977

Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly painting is for me the outstanding image of the Australia exhibition at London’s Royal Academy.

Hanged in 1880 for murdering three police officers in the State of Victoria, bushranger Kelly occupies an ambiguous position in Australian culture. He features on postage stamps and during the 2000 Sydney Olympics figures ran around the arena in costumes inspired by Nolan’s Kelly paintings. But not everyone agrees with the official sanctioning of this outlaw. Journalist Frank Devine described Kelly in The Australian as a ‘wretched horse thief and cop killer’ and compared him to Cambodian despot Pol Pot.

Nolan was fascinated by Kelly and painted many images of him in his homemade armour and now iconic helmet. These paintings, perhaps not coincidentally, began not long after Nolan deserted from the army in 1944, when he spent some time hiding in ‘Kelly country’ in North East Victoria.

The helmet adds an element of mystery to this painting, making it far from a straightforward portrait. The slot for the eyes is an empty space where we look straight through to the sky. Nolan hints at the multifaceted meaning of his series of Ned Kelly works from 1946-47, when he explained to artist and critic Elwyn Lynn:

Really the Kelly paintings are secretly about myself. You would be surprised if I told you. From 1945 to 1947 there were emotional and complicated events in my own life. It’s an inner history of my own emotions, but I am not going to tell you about them.

  • Australia art exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 8 December
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