36. SIDNEY NOLAN
The subject of the heroic and knockabout bushranger is one that Sidney Nolan returned to time and again. His interest began in 1945 and 1946-47 with the famous series of 27 Ned Kelly paintings (later bequeathed by Sunday Reed to the National Gallery of Australia) and continued almost up until the year of his death. Nolan’s obsession with the story of Ned and the Kelly gang resulted in an important and very distinctive body of work. It contributed to the popularity and collective understanding of one of Australia’s enduring myths and cemented Nolan’s reputation as one of the very best 20th century artists.
Kelly at Stringybark Creek c1964-65, comes from a wonderfully productive period in Nolan’s art in which the subjects of Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills and the Golden Age of Antarctic explorers were uppermost in his mind. It was intended as a gift and inscribed with love to his sister, Lorna. Like other works from this period, it remained in her possession until the early 2000s. The fact that this painting was made into a collector’s photo-lithographic print, and that Lorna Goslin hung onto it for so long, is testament to the significance of the work for both Nolan and his immediate family.
Ned Kelly is considered as one of Australia’s great folk heroes. However, dissension over Kelly’s mythic dimension continues to hold sway, with descendants of the three policemen slain at Stringybark Creek recently questioning the veracity and morality of commemorating a ‘hero’ whose claim to fame was, for them at least, horse-theft and murder.
For Nolan, on the other hand, Ned Kelly represented much more. Kelly embodied Australia’s coming of age, he added to the cultural landscape and provided a likely persona for the artist’s own personal trials and tribulations. Like Nolan, Kelly was of Irish descent. He was also anti-authoritarian, railing against the law and establishment values, and these were virtues that Nolan equally applauded. There was a personal twist – Nolan’s grandfather William had ‘joined the Victorian police force in August 1879, soon after the reward for the apprehension of the gang increased to £8,000, and absconded in March 1881’. It appears that Nolan may have been beguiled by the passing down of his family stories.1
Above all else, Kelly appeared to Nolan as someone who could be articulate and nuanced in his ideas. In the famous
56-page ‘Jerilderie Letter’, dicated to Joe Byrne and transcribed by publican George Hanlon in 1879, Kelly gave a detailed justification of his actions. He vehemently denied that he was a bad person but rather a victim of circumstance, maintaining that he had been forced into becoming a bushranger due to the corrupt nature of police. In the letter Kelly raises ideas to do with fairness, egalitarianism, mateship and loyalty. At worst, these sentiments and quasi working class ideals could be seen to justify his accidental and/or provoked skulduggery and, at best, they represented for some an early and impassioned plea for Australian republicanism.
Sidney Nolan first turned to Ned Kelly in 1945. At this time Nolan himself felt like an outsider. Though still in the protective surrounds of John and Sunday Reed at Heide, the cracks had started to appear in the complex relationship. His army posting in Victoria’s Wimmera increased his sense of being alone. Nolan eventually became an army deserter who quite literally had to keep one step ahead of the law. In June 1946 he was discharged in absentia for his misconduct.
The first rank of paintings depict Kelly as larger than life, defiant and dignified. He responds to and valiantly attempts to prevail over the difficult circumstances in which he and his family and friends had been put. In the mid-1950s the image of Ned Kelly underwent fundamental change. As art historian and Nolan studio assistant Damian Smith commented, in a fascinating exhibition profiling Nolan’s engagement with Ned Kelly, the new works were marked by both innovative compositions and a further refinement of the Kelly iconography: ‘Abandoning the saga’s subplots and subsidiary characters, Nolan focussed increasingly on the lone figure of the armoured Ned Kelly.’2 Kelly now stood for universal issues, the likes of which confronted humanity on a new scale in the context of the Cold War. The works mirror contemporary anxieties and allude directly to recent troubling events.
Nolan’s return to the Kelly story in 1964-65 was influenced by a number of personal events. The death of his father inspired Nolan to paint the landscape in central Victoria that he enjoyed holidaying in as a young boy as a tribute to his father. Nolan also reacquainted himself with the 1946-47 Kelly series when they toured Sydney, London, Paris and Edinburgh in 1964-65. His 1964 Boots Scribbling Diary records that Nolan flew to Paris on
14 October to be there for the opening. Two days after his return to London on the 19th he commenced working on a new group of Kelly paintings.3
In these new paintings Kelly was reincarnated in a number of new and interesting ways. Defiant in some, he is also presented as pathetic and dramatically reduced in scale. It is as if he is being swallowed up by the country, overtaken by the gargantuan proportions of his own myth. What we now call ‘Kelly country’.
Riverbank, 1964, is a slightly earlier work that leads directly onto Kelly at Stringybark Creek. The former was exhibited at Marlborough Fine Art Gallery, London, in May 1965 along with works entitled Kelly and horse, Bridge, Camp and Gully. Collectively these works focussed on the confrontation at Stringybark Creek in October 1878 in which three policemen were shot dead. The Victorian Government responded by outlawing Ned and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. This meant they could be shot on sight by anybody at any time. ‘For two years the gang roamed freely through north-eastern Victoria and the Riverina, robbing the banks at Euroa in December 1878 and Jerilderie in February 1879.’4
The basic subject of a naked figure mounted on his horse isolated against a river landscape is continued in both. However there is a strong difference in the two works between the colour tonalities or hues. The deep, sonorous blues, cool greys, and rich creams and green in the earlier Riverbank are replaced by an earthy palette in Kelly at Stringybark Creek that features raw umber and burnt sienna.
Significantly, these colours are the ones favoured by Nolan in his famous and majestic painting Riverbend c1964-65, that he began in late December and unveiled in an exhibition at the Albert Hall, Canberra, in August 1965. Proclaimed by his contemporaries as Nolan’s masterpiece, the nine-panelled Riverbend painting features the predominantly brown hues, dense escarpments and mirror reflections encountered during his childhood roaming near Shepparton in Victoria.
Kelly at Stringybark Creek is best viewed as a continuation of the Kelly paintings from 1964 and as a natural corollary to the Goulburn and Murray River-inspired Riverbend paintings of 1964-65. Its paint has been applied across the surface then rubbed back smooth, increasing the opalescent quality of the water and its capacity for reflection. The pale treatment of Kelly, the ghostly white gum and the smoke in the background add to the vaporous quality of the surface and also contribute to the feeling that Ned Kelly is being visually consumed by the surrounding landscape. This is no longer a defiant Kelly but one stripped of dignity and his commanding presence. He appears crest-fallen and broken, pictured in a dreamlike state and appears aware of his own mortality as he wanders aimlessly along the riverbank. The usually bold abstract form of his famous slit helmet is downplayed and threatens to fade from view.
Ned Kelly was a barometer for Nolan’s personal life. Kelly became a larger-than-life figure in Nolan’s imagination, who was also being forced to surmount great odds. He candidly admitted in 1960 that the ‘the image of Kelly became the touchstone of my progression as a painter’.
Ned Kelly paralleled the ambitions and exploits of others Nolan admired such as the Antarctic explorers and home-grown heroes Burke and Wills. It is not surprising, therefore, that Nolan worked on each of these subjects at the same time or that the respective landscapes in which they railed appealed to his poetic imagination and attractive, painterly style.
1. Underhill, N., ‘Nolan, Sir Sidney Robert (Sid) (1917–1992)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Canberra.
2. Smith, D., ‘Nolan through Kelly’, Unmasked: Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly 1950-1990, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2006-07, p.28.
3. Sidney Nolan Papers, The Rodd, Presteigne, Powys, United Kingdom. In possession of the author.
4. National Museum of Australia website: www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions
Rodney James BA (Hons.), MA