How do you assess the impact of a national icon? You could understand the influence their actions had on the fate of a nation or perhaps look to the way their contemporaries loved or loathed them? With Australia’s Ned Kelly, it’s his enduring folkloric appeal and continual artistic retellings that speak of his iconic status.
Although there have been many retellings of the Kelly story, from breathtaking and exhaustive museum collections to Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang, told in the style of the famous ‘Jerilderie Letter’, the Australian public seems most captivated by the abstract depictions of Sidney Nolan.
It was actually in part Nolan’s renderings of the myth that initially captivated Carey, alongside that letter. Nolan was always interested in talking about legends of his home country, and similarly took a great interest in the letter, a sort of key insight into the thoughts of Kelly, discovered after the young man’s execution.
Nolan’s series on the bushranger and outlaw was inspired by “Kelly’s own words” and he was fascinated by the politics and poetry of the letter, where Kelly tries to explain his actions, to reframe how Australia would view him, a cattle-rustling Irish immigrant, in the future. Nolan draws on the electricity of the words, their rawness and colloquial cool, to create a Kelly fit for future generations.
The outlaw will be best recognised not by his face, but by the metal mask crafted to act as armour for his final stand-off with the police. It’s the mythology of the mask, itself an object that has strong cultural interpretations depending on where you are in the world, that Nolan used for his images, rendering a rough and naive character, yet instantly recognisable.
Highly stylized, almost pop-art in their cut-out look, his series of 27 pictures told the story of Kelly’s life, but with a vagueness of detail in some to allow for interpretation, granting the artist space to create meditations on the key themes of Kelly’s story in a more universal context, situating the Kelly myth as something transcending Australia.
That being said, Australia was a big part of his series too. Nolan had always cared for the rural and in these pictures he was better able to situate place in the story that is often overlooked in favour of Kelly the person, saturating Australia's vast outback.
With a famous black square mask, rendered down to its bare essentials, often so much so that the audience can see right through the letter-box eye-holes, Nolan's Ned Kelly became a window for Australian’s to see the world and importantly, their world. The Kelly myth was always about injustices to one man, but Nolan broadened that to talk about love, land and the dichotomous relationship of chaos and order present in the heart of every man - the experience that ultimately led to the outlaw's bloody demise.
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