There an exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London called “Australia” (hat tip: Prospero) which offers a ‘panoramic sweep’ of the nation’s art history – from Aboriginal to present day. The reviewer wasn’t too impressed with the Royal Academy’s presentation of modern Australian society, but that’s not what this post is about.
One of Australia’s best-known painters is Sidney Nolan, whose 1946 -1947 iconic series of paintings is based on the saga of Ned Kelly in the Australian Outback. Four of them are on display at the exhibit “full of the gallows humour of Australia’s most famous anti-hero.”
Alright, I’ll bite. Who the hell is Ned Kelly and what is he doing in stylized armor? Answer: He’s either a folk hero or murdering outlaw (depending on your point-of-view) and a symbol of the Irish Australian resistance against the Anglo-Australian ruling class in the late 19th century.
Prospero says Australia is a deceptively complicated place. So is Ned Kelly’s painstakingly-detailed Wikipedia bio page; its neutrality is in dispute and it needs additional citations. But I pulled a brief synopsis of his life from it, and, there’s an hour-long documentary (I have yet to watch) at the end of this post called “Ned Kelly: The Robin Hood of Australia”
Kelly was born in Victoria to an Irish convict father, and as a young man he clashed with the Victoria Police. Following an incident at his home in 1878, police parties searched for him in the bush. After he and his colleagues killed three policemen, the colonial government proclaimed Kelly and his gang wanted outlaws.
A final violent confrontation with police took place at Glenrowan on 28 June 1880. Kelly, dressed in home-made plate metal armour and a helmet, was captured and sent to gaol. He was convicted of three counts of wilful murder and hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol in November 1880. His daring and notoriety made him an iconic figure in Australian history, folklore, literature, art and film.
While searching images, I stumbled across National Gallery of Australia’s Ned Kelly Series gallery. Wish I had sooner but I’m not deleting what I’ve already written above. The museum’s write-up says, “In 1961, Sidney Nolan told the writer Colin MacInnes that the main ingredients of the Kelly series were Kelly’s own words, and [Henri] Rousseau, and sunlight.”
Kelly’s own words, the most celebrated record of which is the quasi–political, quasi–personal recital of grievance known as the Jerilderie Letter“, fascinated Nolan with their blend of poetry and political engagement.
I’ve linked the 39-page Jerilderie Letter transcription through the National Museum of Australia. I’ve scanned it briefly and I think whoever wrote Kelly’s Wiki bio page just plagiarized the Letter.