Menzies Art Brands




Ned Kelly
If we picked up human beings as we pick
up sea-shells on the beach, how would
we respond to the square-headed boy from
the bush lying in our lands hand.

Executioner, executioner, he would never fit
in a classical urn, he as more like a
primitive oven which produced hot
impossible words.

Truth comes from the barrel of a gun said
he, truth reside in the rope said the
judge.  Both were right and both
are dead, mixed in glory, shame and quicklime.1

In 1980 the Rudy Komon Gallery in Sydney exhibited twenty-three Kelly paintings. The works were executed by Sidney Nolan in 1979 for an exhibition that was to coincide with the centenary of Ned Kellys death in 1880. The series, of which the present work, Lost Armour, formed a part, was painted at Ruthland, the home of Mary Boyd in southern Wales, not long after her marriage to Nolan in 1978. 

The 1979 series was produced less than two years after the original Kelly series of 1946-47 was donated to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977. In Damian Smiths essay Nolan through Kelly, he commented that Nolans execution of this new body of work within a year of the original series being gifted to the National Gallery of Australia by John and Sunday Reed suggests a cathartic motivation.2 Whilst throughout the eighties Nolan continued to paint occasional Kelly images, Nolan produced the bulk of his Kelly suites between 1945 and 1980 and in 1980 he completed his final series. Compared with the psychologically charged 1979 series, the latter group was characterised by a more lyrical and poetic nature, verging on the sentimental. These last two serialisations of the Kelly saga seemed finally to have released the bushrangers hold over the artist.

Whilst each Kelly series shows evidence of distinctly different styles, the theme that recurs with many of the images is the question of identity. For Nolan, Kelly was an intensely compelling figure who, like the artist, came from working class Irish stock. Nolans interest in Kelly stretched back to his boyhood, where he was entranced by yarns about the Kelly gang told by his grandfather, a member of the police force deployed to hunt for the Kelly Gang.

In his depictions of Ned Kelly, Nolan was clearly not interested in producing an authentic version of the Kelly story, rather he was more concerned with finding a contemporary relevance for the bushranger. Rarely manifest with glamorised interpretations of the outlaw, Nolans imagery is often of the rebel reformer, a human Kelly who was at the mercy of events that had a life of their own: Nolan built around the figure of Kelly a narrative in which the painter meditated upon violence, love, folly, authority, and personal responsibility.3

For the greatest part of the seventies Nolans Kelly imagery noticeably diminished. However, the Kelly works that were produced, especially towards the end of the decade, could be considered some of the most confronting pieces of his oeuvre. Interspersed with Nolans more obvious representations of the bushranger and the various characters from the Kelly story are references born of the artists fascination with the tale of Oedipus, together with his interest in Christian iconography. The vivid symbolism and complex psychological layering of these works highlights Nolans preoccupation with the darker side of the human psyche. In response to this period Smith commented: historically, criticism of Nolan has vacillated between genteel praise of his genius to condemnations of his prolific approach. Invariably commentators have tended to bypass the more challenging aspects of his work. This has amounted to a staving off of insight, for these elements cut to the heart of the artists darkly Romantic vision.4

Lost Armour is an important member of a series of disarmingly immediate paintings which championed the mythic layers of Australias past and created a series of images uniquely tied to the identity of Ned Kelly. Through his various suites of paintings on the same underlying theme, Nolan presented Kelly as the hero of an epic folk tale, a tragic champion of his people, compared symbolically with the greats of ancient Europe and to Christ in his martyrdom. Through pursuing Kelly, Nolan created a powerful and indelible mythic vision. In doing so, he ensured a lasting place for Ned Kelly in the national psyche and gave rise to some of the most memorable images in Australian Art.5


1. Smith, D., from his essay Nolan Through Kelly in the exhibition catalogue Unmasked, Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly 19501990, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2006, p.32

2. Sayers, A., Sidney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Story, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, p.9

3. Smith, D., from his essay Nolan Through Kelly in the exhibition catalogue Unmasked, Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly 19501990, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2006, p.31

4. Ibid, p.33

5. Ibid





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