If we go to Australia and ask who their most important artist was, they’ll probably answer that it is Sidney Nolan.
Being the oldest of 4 children, Nolan studied in several technical schools, but he left formal education at 14, continuing his studies part time of by correspondence.
Nolan is enrolled in the army but, when they communicate him that he is going to be transferred to Papua New Guinea to fight in the frontline, he deserts and flees to Melbourne.
In 1946 he begins with a series of 27 paintings on Ned Kelly, an Irish-Australian outlaw that, with his band, robbed Banks and caravans at the end of 1870s. He was pursued by the authorities for years until, in the year 1880, wearing a home-made metal armor, Kelly confronts the police next to his band and was captured. Sometime later, he was judged for his crimes and condemned to death by hanging.
Despite some consider Kelly a simple criminal, other consider him an icon of the resistance against the colony. Slowly, Kelly became a key figure of the Australian folk
Nolan, with his series, wanted to portrait this romantic hero that defies authority. He wasn’t interested in showing how the historic events occurred, but he preferred to paint universal ideas: injustice, love and treason. On the other hand, he used this chance also to put different Australian landscapes in his canvas.
In today’s painting, we see Kelly with his armor, riding a horse with his back to us and with a rifle in his hands. In all the series by Nolan, Kelly is always wearing the armor, as a totemic figure, a symbol beyond man. With the desert as the background, with its bright colors that stand out the silhouette of this popular hero who, lonely, challenges bravely his destiny. The story of Ned Kelly, without any doubt, meets all Joseph Campbell’s characteristics of the myth.
Although in the 40s abstract expressionism was at its peak, Nolan, reluctant, chooses to express the story in a hybrid way between abstraction and realism.
If the reader didn’t realize it, we’ll say that Nolan identifies himself with Kelly’s figure. Having deserted the army, he also became a fugitive himself, in an outlaw only ruled by his own codes.