Is there anything more iconic in the world of Australian art than the solid black box of Ned Kelly’s helmet? I am sitting in the National Gallery of Australia with Deborah Hart, Senior Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture. We’re in the new Nolan Gallery soaking up the rich visual treats resulting from one of Australia’s most legendary artists painting one of Australia’s most fascinating legends. When Sidney Nolan painted his first Kelly series he could never have foreseen that his retelling of this tough-as-nails story, a tale of hero and anti-hero, would go on to be loved by a Nation and take pride of place in the NGA.
‘He was obviously obsessed’ laughs Hart, of the twenty six paintings in the series. ‘Nolan identified with Ned Kelly. He had absconded from the army during the Second World War, and lay low for a while, even using a different name. So he shared the same idea of other self, and an anti-authoritarian streak.’
The now famous artworks had humble beginnings. They were painted in the late 1940s on the kitchen table at Heide, an artist’s sanctuary and the home of art world champions John and Sunday Reed, Nolan’s great friends and mentors.
Around this time artists were becoming interested in ways of telling local stories and history, not much of which had been done in the settler society. There wasn’t the plethora of movies and books about the Ned Kelly legend that there are now, so it was a story that Nolan researched for himself, even travelling through Kelly country to get a sense of the landscape where these infamous events had unfolded.
In 1977 Sunday Reed gifted the paintings, which had been left at Heide, to the NGA, on the condition that the series should always be shown together. ‘She believed they would be fitting in the National collection’ explains Hart.
For decades the series has been exhibited upstairs in the Australian Art Galleries, but current Director Rod Radford decided that paintings of such iconic status deserved to be far more accessible to their adoring public. He imagined a dedicated gallery space that would show the series to its best advantage, and encourage an active engagement with Australian art. In late 2009 his vision became a reality, with the unveiling of the purpose built Nolan Gallery, as a part of the ongoing NGA extension and refurbishments.
In their new home – an elegant, oval shaped room – the paintings are revitalised and unified. The most iconic image – Kelly on horseback – is front and centre, with the expert lighting and design creating an immersive and meditative space.
As Hart and I watch an excitable school group make a circuit around the Nolan Gallery it is easy to see the magic Ned Kelly and Sidney Nolan weave over the visiting public. Just as the Kelly legend continues to resonate with Australians, influencing Australian visual art and culture, the Nolan Kelly series will continue to capture our imaginations.