Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series – on display at the National Gallery here in Canberra – is about as Australian as you can get. Of the 25 large paintings in the series, the most iconic is of Ned Kelly statuesquely positioned on his horse, with the great Australian outback in the background.
The word ‘icon’ traditionally has two meanings: the religious icons that used to be sold in shops, pictures of religious martyrs and little statues of saints that were pedaled for entry into the other promised worlds; and the tall statues of victorious, muscly Greek gods.
Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly’ (1946) features the notorious hero sitting, helmeted, high on horseback. The painting represents a symbol of Australian martyrdom, as Kelly was executed by hanging for his crimes, and also depicts a powerful god-like being, towering over his environment. Perhaps this does not exactly reflect the more traditional icons, but Kelly’s status is iconic just the same.
Walking through the collection at the gallery is a little like walking reverently around the interior of a Catholic church, stopping before each station of the cross. Each stop depicts a scene from the dramatic end of Kelly’s career as a bushranger, as he railed against injustice and the wrong doings that the petty English bureaucracy inflicted on the poor Irish of the time. With one graphic scene after another – from the police shooting at Stringybark Creek and the slimy pitiful police officer making a pass at Kelly’s sister, to the siege at Jerilderie and the final courtroom scene where Kelly curses the judge – each strengthens Kelly’s mythological status, as well as solidifying the iconic status of the artwork.
Kelly has long been an icon. He was the subject of the world’s first motion feature film – ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in Australia 1906 – and two classic Australian novels: Robert Drewe’s ‘Our sunshine’, and Peter Carey’s ‘The True history of the Kelly Gang’. Sidney Nolan painted his series in 1946, nearly a century after Ned Kelly’s death, and though there are countless Kelly inspired documentaries, biographies, re-enactments and even bumper stickers in existence, when Australians reference Ned Kelly, it is largely Nolan’s iconography that comes to mind.
If Kelly, high on his horse, has become our icon, then Nolan’s work elevates this status by creating a mythological figure by creating a painting equivalent the immense statues of Christ or Buddha that tower over people around the world. We look up at Kelly. His figure dominates the canvas. His black metal helmet with the rectangle slot shows his strength and vision – though significantly we do not see Kelly’s eyes looking back at us, but rather, but the bushland beyond, making him part of the landscape and its timelessness.
On the day I visited the Kelly exhibition I was filled with awe and excitement – it was the first time I had seen the paintings in person. There seemed to be more paintings than 25, as they were displayed in a circular row – a 360-degree panorama – of narrative art. I was filled with curiosity. How do other people view the works? The Kelly story is controversial, so is it right to see a convicted, police-murdering thief as a hero? Is he a cultural icon for everyone? How relevant are these paintings to us today?
I watched as people moved around the works in a reverent, orderly fashion. Beside each painting was a plaque, hosting pieces of text from the 1881 Royal Commission into the police conduct during the hunt for Kelly and his band of outlaws. Each visitor paused at each plaque, absorbing the information before moving on to the next. There was a dynamism of movement. It was like a lively dance.
But our idea of Kelly is fiction. Even Nolan, painting seventy years or so after Kelly’s death, knew that he was bringing to life the stories that fed the myth. So why did Australians’ embrace the Kelly story so readily from the beginning?
Kelly’s story grew out of the early dispossession of land. He represents; the infighting of the blended invading nations under the banner of the British Empire; the tensions between the poor Irish and the ruling class, as well as the rich and the poor more generally, especially to the final years of the gold rush; and, the vulnerability of single parent families, and even the strength of women as single parents and their mistreatment at the hands of predatory police. In our imagination he is positioned solidly in the country, instead of the city, or in our own reality. Kelly symbolises the ability for the ordinary person to break through and fight back. Perhaps we choose Kelly again and again because it allows us to stand up for our own aspirations, and to rise above those suppressing us.
This makes me think about our icons. Somewhere under all of our perceptions, all of our own interpretations, is the real person – but the icon we revere is far, far from this person. The iconic work in the gallery uses Kelly’s myth to draw a long bow and shoot our imagination through to a different reality. That’s the role of the artist.
Our need for icons perhaps replaces traditionally orthodox religious needs, for more modern secular ones. We have always needed a hero. One who does not to come from the ruling class, but who was an underdog, who was one of ‘us’.