A couple of times a week, over the past couple of months, I’ve been a visitor-experience volunteer at MAMA, talking with people about Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, which is currently showing. This is the only NSW stop on a travelling exhibition from the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
It is no exaggeration to describe this series as a national treasure. The comments from many visitors are about how Australian the paintings are – the colours, the landscapes, and the sense of fun in them resonate with many people. Nolan set out deliberately to create a modern Australian art by painting landscapes in a fresh way, and these paintings are essentially landscapes with the Ned Kelly story stamped on top in the form of naive, almost cartoonish figures.
That said, the series is foundational in the modern conception and imagination of the Ned Kelly legend – we would simply not see Ned Kelly in the same way without Nolan’s myth-making images. Nolan did an enormous amount of research on the Kelly story before he began to paint; and he was fascinated by the mythical possibilities of the story. This is the power of these works: Nolan has taken the Kelly story and re-imagined it with stark, almost two-dimensional characters that are now iconic Australian images.
The most well-known, the figure of Kelly on a horse viewed from behind, wearing his black armour with the sky and clouds visible through the rectangular cut-out for his eyes, is set in a flat but quintessentially-Australian landscape that is not even Kelly country but the Wimmera, where Nolan served in the army in the early 1940s. This is not, of course, the real Ned Kelly, but that hardly matters. This Kelly is both more and less real – holding a mirror up to Australian society, showing our values, our beliefs, our dreams in a new light. This is what art does. Here Nolan has done it brilliantly, and – it must be said – with humour. He has had serious fun with it.
The joy, for me, of speaking with visitors to the exhibition is in the number of people – often locals, but not always – who have inherited their own oral traditions around the Kelly story. Nolan’s telling is just one interpretation of the events – there are many different tales out there in the community, each quite variable in the telling. It is good to be reminded that Nolan’s visual telling is just one of many divergent viewpoints, for all that it is a powerful, striking and unforgettable vision.
It is a privilege to have these painting in Albury for the summer. They are hung all together, beautifully lit and in a room of perfect size, so that they can be taken in with one continuous gaze. Thanks to MAMA and the generous sponsors, this exhibition is also free. Many locals have already been taking the opportunity of return visits.
Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series is at MAMA until 17th February.