Ned Kelly, 1946 (enamel on composition board) by Sidney Nolan,  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Alternative Histories: Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series

 Sir Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings have formed some of the most recognisable imagery in Australia. The stylised figurative descriptions of Australia’s most notorious bushranger set in a sunburnt outback elicit memories of Australia’s recent British history. Painted mostly between 1946 and 1947, the works were made during a period in which the artist lived and worked side by side with other Australian Modernist artists of his generation.

First-class marksman, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / Art Gallery of NSW / Bridgeman Images.
First-class marksman, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / Art Gallery of NSW / Bridgeman Images.

The Kelly Series was painted predominantly at ‘Heidi’, a fifteen acre property in Heidelberg, just outside Melbourne. John and Sunday Reed purchased the property in 1934. As passionate supporters and collectors of Australian art, the couple opened their doors to artists and writers and it became a hub that nurtured creativity, discussion and the promotion of modern art and literature. From the 1930s to the 1960s some of Australia’s most important Modernist artists lived at the property, including Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd, Danila Vassilieff and John Perceval.

The property continues to exist as the Heidi Museum of Modern Art and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful museums to visit. Sunday Reed’s ‘kitchen garden’ has been well maintained and the museums’ permanent collection represents some of Australia’s most important artists, with many of the works painted onsite. You can easily lose a day in the gardens, art and history of the place.

Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / National Gallery of Australia / Bridgeman Images.
Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / National Gallery of Australia

Like many artists, Sidney Nolan’s life was a bohemian existence. He travelled extensively in Australia and it was his 1946 trip through ‘Kelly country’ in northwest Victoria with friend and poet Max Harris that is said to have inspired the series.  During his time at Heidi he lived in a ménage a trois relationship with John and Sunday Reed. Sunday inspired many of his paintings and their open relationship of nine years ended only after Sunday refused to leave her husband. In 1948 a rejected Nolan married John Reed’s sister Cynthia instead.

Melbourne art historian Janine Burke has suggested that Sunday collaborated on the Kelly Series during their affair, as the pair used to paint together in the dining room with Nolan’s arm around her waist.  Gossip certainly suggests that this is the reason that the paintings were never returned to Nolan after their split.

Death of sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / National Gallery of Australia
Death of sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / National Gallery of Australia

 

Almost all of the Kelly Series were gifted to the National Gallery of Australia by Sunday Reed in 1977. The series depicts the main events in the life of the armoured bushranger and his gang, from the shoot-out with police constables at Stringybark Creek to the trial that led to Kelly’s hanging. Despite this retelling the series combines both biography and autobiography together. Painted in the period immediately after the Second World War the paintings represent the artists’ musings on love, betrayal, violence and injustice.

The Trial, 1947 (enamel on composition board) by Sidney Nolan (1917-92) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
The Trial, 1947 (enamel on composition board) by Sidney Nolan (1917-92) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In 1948 Nolan wrote that the Kelly saga ‘was a story arising out of the bush and ending in the bush’ and it is clear that landscape was fundamental to his work during this time[1]. The simple palette and intuitive brushstrokes create landscapes in which the flattened black figure of Kelly often appears to preside.

I find the desire to paint the landscape involves a wish to hear more of the stories that take place in the landscape… to find expression in such household sayings as ‘’game of Ned Kelly.’’[2]

The paintings tap into the collective memories and myths of settlers in Australia with their storytelling and quintessentially Australian landscapes. I am fascinated by the alternative history of the paintings, the myths behind their production and the people whose lives became intertwined at Heidi.

 Bush Picnic, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / National Gallery of Australia
Bush Picnic, 1946 by Sir Sidney Nolan / National Gallery of Australia

[1] Sidney Nolan, The Australia Post, vol 1, pt 4, July 1948, quoted in ‘’The Kelly’ paintings by Sidney Nolan’, p. 20

[2] Sidney Nolan, The Australia Post, vol 1, pt 4, July 1948, quoted in ‘’The Kelly’ paintings by Sidney Nolan’, p. 20

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  1. Pingback: Sidney Nolan's Burke and Wills series - bridgeman blog

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