Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series at AGWA

Design / Life

Nolan’s bold and expressive sense of landscape and vivid storytelling depicts the story of the outlaw that has captivated the hearts and minds of a nation for the past 140 years.

The sense of pride that most Australian’s feel for the country’s most (in)famous outlaw begins in childhood with school yard imitation games of Ned Kelly fighting against authority. It carries right through to the late Heath Ledger’s blockbuster depiction of the legendary bushranger, and further still.

It’s a story that not only captured one of Australia’s most significant artists of the 20th century, but one that also resonated with Sir Sidney Nolan’s emotional state at the time of painting the Ned Kelly series

“Really the Kelly paintings are secretly about myself… It’s an inner history of my own emotions,” he later revealed to author Elwyn Lynn in 1984.

Painted between 1946 and 1947 at the kitchen table of Sunday and John Reed, the series reflects Nolan’s flair for storytelling with the lines between fact and fiction often blurred.

For the first time all 26 of the 27 paintings, owned by the National Gallery of Australia, are on display in Perth at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. We chat to Coordinating Curator Melissa Harpley, Historical & Modern Art, about the series.


Tell us a little about the theme of individuality that comes through in the series.

With regard to individuality, while Kelly is perhaps seen as an individual fighting authority, and the simplified outline with which Nolan depicts him may make him seem two-dimensional, the series as a whole actually presents individuals as complex characters.


How does Nolan’s artwork challenge the audience to see the country in a bold new way?

Nolan’s interest in European modernism, particularly abstraction, was brought to bear on the depiction of the Australian landscape in a new way. He used this simplified approach to help him distil what he saw as the essence of that landscape to make it a suitable location for the depiction of legend. Within the series, the landscape ranges from being lyrical to sun-drenched to full of menace. It’s also a new approach to painting the figure in the landscape.


The series offers a curious mix of actual facts and imagined scenarios by Nolan. Why do you think he did this?

The series of paintings was not intended as an illustration of a set of historical events, but rather a way to ‘get inside’ the head of Kelly, and also to understand his position in the nation’s psyche. So Nolan is dealing with the emotional and the symbolic as much as the representational. Including some imagined scenarios helped Nolan achieve this. It’s also about the pacing of the narrative as a whole … modulating it between points of high drama and the peaceful, the innocent or the comical.


How did the series challenge the traditions of landscape art?

Quoting Patrick McCaughey from the Sidney Nolan Landscapes and Legends exhibition catalogue: “By painting the legend so literally with levitating figures and policemen falling headlong from their horses, Nolan clearly engaged folkish and primitive elements and delivered a snub to conventional taste and propriety.”



Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series is a free exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, running until 12 November 2018. It is one of three contrasting exhibitions in AGWA’s Rebels, Radicals & Pathfinders, which celebrates free thinkers, boundary pushers and ground breakers.