One of the mysteries of Sidney Nolan’s “Ned Kelly” series of paintings is the absence of a hanging scene. The series might be read as a type of Stations of the Cross, book-ended by the bleak Landscape and The Trial. Both paintings hint at death but do not reveal it. In Nolan’s painterly world the outlaw is never crucified.
Although his head is still missing, history tells us that Kelly was most definitely hanged. However, giving credence to Ned’s courtroom promise is his appearance here in Dublin. In essence, making the reverse journey of his convict father, where Ned was transported to the old Garda Síochána (the Irish police force) headquarters, which is now the Irish Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition that closed in January. Here, Ned was imprisoned and then hung again. Such is Life.
Nolan’s Kellys’ are arguably Australia’s greatest paintings that tell a narrative of British colonial repression versus a quixotic insurrection doomed to failure. It is a very Melbourne story, so let’s start there.
It is February 2003 and I am in the city where I grew up, on a brief visit from Cork. The airwaves are full of the sentencing of two men for the murder of officers Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rodney Miller outside a Chinese restaurant in the southern suburb of Moorabbin during 1998. The two policemen were ambushed and shot at close range whilst staking out the restaurant in response to a spate of robberies. That same night I attend the opening of an exhibition at the State Library of Victoria dedicated to the life, art, artefacts and literature of Ned Kelly. The juxtaposition of the state institution celebrating an outlaw responsible for the deaths of three policemen in similar circumstance to the contemporaneous events seemed somewhat incongruous and stark.
Amplifying the incongruity was that upon approaching the library disgruntled staff waved placards protesting an industrial grievance, whilst wearing Ned Kelly-inspired helmets. These masked agitators were underneath a sculpture of Sir Redmond Barry who stood stoically, elevated on his plinth, his regal bronze robe protecting him from the elements. Barry has been outside “his” library since 1887 and has survived world wars, depressions, and even the end of mankind in the Stanley Kramer 1959 post-nuclear apocalyptic film On the Beach. In a famous scene this sculpture is surrounded by the Salvation Army whose banner read, “There is Still Time Brother”.
Barry’s left hand holds a book to symbolise his role in creating this cradle of learning, and his posture lives up to his motto inscribed (along with his coat of arms) under the grand portico that deferred so blatantly to the British Museum. It read “Boutez en Avant”, which translates as “thrust forward”, as any self assured colonial master might have writ large on a publicly funded institution whose architecture is a mash-up of ancient Greek and British ideology. Sir Redmond Barry was an advocate of free libraries and education and was also the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to his death. The outlaw famously responded to his sentence with “I will meet you there”. Barry duly died a few days later from “congestion of the lungs and a carbuncle in the neck”, immediately transferring to the already legendary dead Ned the mystical powers of a crucified prophet.
Up until 1968 Barry’s State Library of Victoria also housed the National Gallery of Victoria and its School of Art. It was here that the son of a tram driver and Irish descendant sporadically attended art school back in the 1930s. That man was Sidney Nolan who one can visualise jumping off the St Kilda tram and charging up the steps under Sir Redmond’s disdainful eye. One can imagine Nolan studying French poetry (he was initially torn between being an artist or a poet) in the great reading room (that is if it had not been banned) that was also named after Barry. Maybe that is where Nolan read the court transcripts of the trial and old newspaper articles about Ned Kelly. If he did he would have noticed that on the same day the hanging Judge from Ballyclogh, County Cork, sentenced Ned to death the accompanying article in The Age read:
“A prosecution for conspiracy has been instituted by the Government against the leading promoters of the agitations in Ireland … A portion of the County Cork has been proclaimed a disturbed district …”
The global clash between authority and accountability had begun and by the time we arrive at the end of World War II, mankind had fought the Great War, revolution had overtaken Eastern Europe and the Great Depression had given way to the rise of fascism. From our 21st century vantage point, we can now see the victorious age of the liberal democracy emerge from these battles, however at its mid-point the fight for political supremacy was in full swing. Gone were the empires, monarchies and after Hitler fell only two great political systems remained to shoot it out for global domination. The only problem was that if they did, On the Beach would become a reality. Therefore communism and capitalism would compete economically, technologically and culturally for supremacy. The “Cold War” had begun and from this point only one winner could emerge as the true incarnation of the modern state.
New identities formed out of the old world order. For example, Australian citizenship was introduced into law in 1948, and the Republic of Ireland was born the same year. The divide between the Anglo-Australian Protestant and the Irish Australian Catholic, that had been so fractious in the First World War, had been dissolved, and the state moved inexorably towards unified secularisation. It was from here that Ned Kelly was raised from the dead.
In 1945 Sidney Nolan’s younger brother tragically drowned in a dam up in the north of Australia whilst serving in the army. This knowledge reinforces the poetic sense of absence in the first painting one meets in the exhibition, a view of a dam, titled Landscape (1947). Around the time of his brother’s death Nolan found refuge back at Heide, the home of John and Sunday Reed where a number of artists were developing highly original and distinctly Australian modernist voices. Nolan had already experimented with a modernist vernacular, but after the army had sent him to the Wimmera (Victoria’s equivalent of Siberia) Nolan deserted both abstraction and the military. Back in Melbourne Nolan laid out the Kelly series on Heide’s kitchen table.
“One could imagine Ned’s head alongside Richard Nixon’s in glass jars somewhere in the year 2999 AD.”
The 27 panels frame a larger animation. At the time Nolan painted these works he was indeed the fugitive and also in a deeply passionate affair with the older Sunday Reed whilst her husband, John, “looked on”. In the kitchen Sunday would read the young working-class lad poetry whilst Nolan would paint the Kelly series on the table. The description of their relationship relates strongly to the painting of Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly (1946). This painting, along with Landscape, reveals the intense autobiographical nature of the series which leads one to ask: has Nolan, like many authors, simply changed the names of his characters to hide their real identities? Whilst the Constable gropes at Kate Kelly at the kitchen table, Ned Kelly sits framed by the window in the stark landscape. Maybe it’s John Reed under the helmet? After all Nolan could dress his characters in whatever costumes he fancied so we would be wrong to assume every “Ned” is Sid. Especially as in some pictures there is nobody inside the steel suit at all, just a slit of landscape framed in black.
Nolan’s abstract Australian landscape formed a theatrical backcloth to developments in Australia including the pitched battles between modernists and conservatives. These battles moved into the courts, and Australia inexorably moved towards a modern nation state. However much of this context gets lost in contemporary interpretations, as evidenced by Aidan Dunne writing in the Irish Times who responded to this exhibition with:
“What really sets them apart, and makes them great, specifically Australian works, is that Nolan managed to do something amazing — he managed to figure out a way to paint the Australian landscape.”
Nolan certainly opened the door for other artists, however his focus was not the landscape but the arrival of modernism in Australia and the ferocious battle that ensued both for Nolan personally, and, for art, in the public domain.
A court trial is by definition an examination and assessment of the past, present and future. It is therefore wholly appropriate that The Trial (1947) is the last painting one comes to at IMMA hung in domestic-size rooms (not unlike Heide itself) in a chronological order of historical events. The Trial, like a number of other paintings in this series, is a masterpiece. It does not need the rest of the series to support it for it can stand alone in any gallery anywhere in the world, a painting whish so well embraces, with power and beauty, the “present past and future” within it.
We might then ask is it Sir Redmond Barry and Ned Kelly squaring off in this historical courtroom drama? Or is it the stark revolutionary Russian black-square confronting the conservative British establishment in an 18th-century powdered wig? The Russian Malevich v the British Gainsborough?; Nolan realising that he is a figurative artist in an abstract landscape?; or relating Kelly to the trial of Socrates (“Nobody knows anything about my case except myself”). Both Sir Redmond and Ned Kelly have an air of death about them whether it’s the black cloth on the judge’s head or Kelly’s burqa obliterating the figure with the impenetrable black armour of modern enamel paint.
Painting itself is on trial and is why Nolan finds a place in the court for the three-great genres: the figure, the still life (yellow pitcher and glass by the judge), and the landscape (seascape and beach outside the windows). Nolan is making it clear that 18th-century ideas could not hope to understand or pass judgment on 20th-century modernism in the same way as a 19th-century Anglo-Irish judge, no matter how forward-thinking in other areas of his life, was culturally incapable of understanding Kelly’s plight in a British colony. Like Socrates, Ned Kelly was condemned by his own people — the judge was Irish, the policemen were Irish as was the outlaw … but the law was British. In art a similar imposition of authority was coming down the line in the form of modernist doctrines from abroad. Nolan was informed and aware of these, as were many Australians, by the two seminal court cases that were as influential as any artist or exhibition in introducing modernism into Australia.
The first of these court cases began with the Ern Malley hoax by two conservative poets (McAauley and Stewart) that developed into the 1944 farcical prosecution of Nolan’s fellow Angry Penguin and editorial committee member, Max Harris. Harris was prosecuted for “indecent advertisements”.
The Angry Penguins journal championed modernism … which according to McAuley and Stewart, had rendered the editors of the journal Max Harris and John Reed “insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination”. Harris and Reed were under constant attack from traditionalists and conservatives who not only disapproved of the modernist trend artistically, but also the association that modernism had with left-wing political groups and ideas in Europe.
The second court case a few weeks later involved William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith, which was challenged on the grounds that it was not a portrait but a caricature. Both cases were high-profile in the press, and swung between high drama and farcical nonsense, however at their centre was the battle for a new, modern way of thinking in terms of culture and art. Maybe that is why Ned has cartoon eyes? Is it Dobell v the establishment? Or is it the wonderful fictitious poet, Ern Malley, confronting a conservative and judgmental society who accidentally created him (on purpose)? It could be all these things however a caricature in the dock would seem to strongly reference Dobell’s portrait of Smith that redefined what art could be in Australia.
Ned’s prophetic pronouncement of an afterlife came to pass in art; immortalised on a set of cheap composition boards that have been transformed into Australia’s most valuable pieces of masonite. On one of them Sidney Nolan created the larger court that Ned Kelly so desperately wanted and it all exists in a space measuring three-foot-by-four on what might be considered the first truly postmodern painting in Australia; where high and low art combine with fact and fiction. The series could be a set of non-religious “stations” (sans crucifixion) or a type of comic strip, maybe a precursor to Matt Groenig’s Futurama. One could imagine Ned’s head alongside Richard Nixon’s in glass jars somewhere in the year 2999 AD, along with Bender, the “Ned Kelly”-looking metal robot. Just as Rupert Murdoch appears in The Simpsons, there are guest appearances in Nolan’s paintings. We all understand the irony with Murdoch running the Springfield media, however as time has passed the references in Nolan’s paintings have become dated and all but forgotten; Sir Redmond Barry, William Dobell and Ern Malley being prime examples.
Could Groenig have written a script where the man who sentenced Ned Kelly to death would be instrumental in creating the institution that educated the artist who would “thrust forward” and raise the outlaw from the dead? Both to be knighted by the British and sent back to Dublin. Such is life.