Sidney Nolan. Ned Kelly 1946 from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947 enamel paint on composition board. 90.80 x 121.50 cm. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977 National Gallery of Australia

Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) we’re the first state outside of Canberra to see the series.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you should recognize Sidney Nolan’s iconic image of Ned Kelly. You should also know the famous ‘Such Is Life’ quote. Some of you may have used it yourself on the odd occasion or two, while others may have made the ultimate commitment in ink, so strong is this story in the Australian psyche. But how many of you know anything about the other 25 pictures in the Nolan series? Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) we’re the first state outside of Canberra to see the series. If only all history lessons were as entertaining as Nolan’s humorous fact and fiction exploration.

Sidney Nolan. Ned Kelly 1946 from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947 enamel paint on composition board. 90.80 x 121.50 cm. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977 National Gallery of Australia

Over the twelve months between 1946 and 1947 Nolan hunkered down at the home of Sunday and John Reed. After reading through newspaper articles, police reports and the Royal Commission Report, Nolan set about painting the story of Ned Kelly, using the kitchen table as an easel, or so the story goes.  In telling the Kelly story many painters would have stuck to the facts but not Nolan. With a flair for storytelling Nolan may have made a few embellishments here and there, and cleverly leaves it up to  the viewer to sift the fact from fiction.

Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly Series Perth opening. Nick Mitzevich, Director of the National Gallery of Australia and Stefano Carboni Director, AGWA. ©The Ponder Room

One such example is the painting titled, Steve Hart dressed as a girl. I was happily perusing each painting, taking in the sturdy brushstrokes and bold images, until I read the accompanying caption about Hart. It stated that many of the Kelly gang ‘may have taken to female attire to escape the police’, and that Hart had once taken it one step further thereby ‘winning at the Greta Races while dressed as a girl riding side-saddle’.

Could this be true? I pondered. I had a vague recollection of hearing this somewhere before, a recent television commercial perhaps. One thing was certain, this was not your average dry, retelling of history, that could be admired with a quick walk through. No, this series of paintings demanded more from the viewer.

Steve Hart dressed as a girl. Sidney Nolan. Ned Kelly 1946 from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947 enamel paint on composition board. 90.80 x 121.50 cm. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977 National Gallery of Australia

The next painting to get me guessing was called Quilting the armour’ which showed Mrs Skillion, or Margaret Kelly as she was also known, sewing soft blue quilting into the inside of the famous helmet. Not being an art officiano, this stopped me in my tracks, truth or an artist’s poetic licence?

The thought ate away at me until I eventually turned and asked one of the nearby official guests to collaborate the story. Much to my chagrin I later discovered that the person I’d asked was none other than Nolan expert, Dr Deborah Hart, who also just happens to be Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery. Typical of me really. What followed was a fascinating discussion about what the painting represented.

Dr Deborah Hart, Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery. Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly Series Perth opening ©The Ponder Room

As I returned to admiring the painting with a fresh perspective, I was pleasantly surprised when Dr Hart broke away from a television interview to tell me, that she too considered the blurring of fact and fiction and the underlying importance of family, key elements of the exhibition.

Later still, Melissa Harpley, AGWA curator of Historical and Modern Art, chatted with me about the painting, Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek 1946. This she said signaled the change, the beginning of the violence, the first conflict between Kelly and the police. It was also the first time Nolan showed Kelly’s eyes inside the helmet.

As I finally made it to the end of the exhibition and stood back to witness the tale as a whole. You may be tempted to move quickly through the exhibition to the most iconic and valuable painting standing, pride of place, on its own at the end of the gallery space. However, I strongly recommend that you take the time to view the series of vignettes in order, almost like a picture book or, given the humour, a cartoon. That way you’ll get the sense of having watched a short film as the story builds before you, much as it must have appeared in Nolan’s head. I can’t believe we get to see this important exhibition, and being free you really have no excuses.

The Kelly series is part of AGWA’s current focus on free-thinkers, and ground-breakers across three exhibitions – Rebels, Radicals and Pathfinders. Outlaw Kelly is a great choice for the rebels. Having seen the exhibition I like to think that Nolan was a bit of a rebel too, at least in his unconventional style, and one I am sure Kelly would have enjoyed having a yarn with around the camp fire. Whether Steve Hart was there too, resplendent in a pink pinafore, I’ll leave up to you.

The Ned Kelly exhibition is on loan from the National Gallery of Australia.

Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series runs from 11 August to 12 November 2018. Free

For more information and to find out about other events pertaining to this exhibition go to Art Gallery of WA.

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Glennys Marsdon
Most kids grow out of asking ‘but why’, Glennys didn’t. So she trained as a psychologist and established The Customers’ Voice, consumer psychology consultancy in 2000, where she researches why we do what we do. After losing her partner in 2005 she understood the importance of making the most out of life, and began The Ponder Room blog, to help people do just that. By ‘having a go’ she now has a monthly column in a magazine, three non-fiction books published, been nominated for a Telstra Business Women’s Award, and profiled by US internet guru Seth Godin in a worldwide competition about people making a difference. She firmly believes in living a positive life and following your passion.