“Would the real Ned Kelly please stand up?” This unfamiliar face is the real Ned Kelly.
Ned Kelly was a zeitgeist, an Irish Catholic rebel born of a convict who died in incarceration, who galvanised his community’s anti-establishment sentiment when he wrote a manifesto of sorts after his mother was unfairly sentenced to three years imprisonment. Ned Kelly, a freedom fighter, Australia’s Robin Hood, and now a well established figure of Aussie mythology. He’s a familiar subject for image makers; a likely representative of rebellion, independence and a muddled icon in the cultural psyche of Australians. Many see him as a wronged victim of the empire, but however you view ‘Our Ned’ his influence is certainly felt across an entire spectrum of artistic tributes.
Kelly’s death mask was the first depiction of the man after the fact. His collapsed skull, in a waxy mould, is at once ghoulish and horrifying. And yet his jaw seems to jut, his face even in death is set and determined. There’s a smirk dancing in his lips and welts where the hangman’s rope rubbed him out of this world. But even before he uttered that infamous departing line, “Such is life”, artists were piecing together the myth of the man in poetry, ditties and newspaper caricatures.
During the two years of the Kelly Gang rampage (1878-1880) the law was so sensitive to Kelly-sympathetic songs that a penalty of up to £5 or a few months in prison was the price for the offence of being caught chanting Stringybark Creek. This was the most famous of the ditties circulating the colonies about the bushrangers and its tongue-in-cheek depiction of the foolish, even lazy, police and victorious outlaws made for uncomfortable relations between an agitated population with a deep mistrust of authority. The poem’s last lines go so far as to voice the hero, suggesting that it was with reluctance that he had to resort to brutality;
But brave Kelly muttered sadly as he loaded up his guns,
“Oh, what a bloody pity that the bastard tried to run.”
Kellyana enjoyed a raging vogue from this period and for the next thirty odd years with books such as Outlaws of the Wombat Ranges (1879) a published recount of the bushranger and his gang’s exploits. This book came out the same year Kelly himself penned the Jerilderie Letter, which was his 8000 rant which he failed to have printed despite holding the whole town of Jerilderie hostage in an attempt to find a newspaper man to print it. The letter, which can now be found along with the Outlaws book at the Victorian State Library, was the inspiration and main source for Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2000).
In 2003, a Victorian State Library exhibition, Kelly Culture: Reconstructing Ned Kelly, which was dedicated to the folkloric legend, Peter Carey recalls that viewing Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly works in Melbourne 1962 for the first time, “knocked my socks off me and burnt into my brain.” This could probably sum up the nations response to Nolan’s impactful work, generally. His “First Class Marksman” sold for $5.4 million in March this year, triumphantly mocking the sluggishness of the art economy in Australia.
Art commentary suggests that the abstract and bold images, which feel like a Kellified Stations of the Cross, are tributes to a figure Nolan (1917-1992) strongly identified with. He was known to sign his own name ‘Ned’ and had turned fugitive after going AWOL from the army in 1945. The artist invites us to put whomever we like in the role of Kelly, painting the iron outlaw in his famous makeshift armour, as a black square. But rather than eyes staring out from within the facemask, it is just the vastness of the outback.
“In using the black square,” says co-curator of the Kelly Culture exhibition Allison Holland, “Nolan has created a space for us to play with the myth as much as we want.” Invisible, empty, ready to be replaced by any one of us as a symbol of our own resistance to the powers that be. This universality was picked up on for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when black boxed bushrangers danced in the opening ceremony for the whole world to see a culture in love with its own criminality.
Julian Ashton (1851-1942), sketched Ned Kelly in the dock at his trial in Beechworth 1880. He later was a friend and mentor to another Australian artist, Norman Lindsay who famously produced Kelly works. Lindsay found time between painting his sumptuous nudes, to famously capture Kelly in a monochromatic pen and ink sketch as an iron-clad superhero emerging from the ghostly bush. Few Australians know (or would believe) that it is widely thought that we are home to the world’s very first feature film, but in 1906 The Story of The Kelly Gang enjoyed a successful Boxing Day Release. The production of films about bushrangers was banned in 1912, clearly the law was still uncomfortable with the public’s enthusiasm for the rebel fighter.
This year, another rebel, Archibald Prize finalist, Adam Cullen, exhibited for the first time in the UK and who do you think was the subject of his show? ‘Iron Mask – The Ned Kelly Series’ demonstrates Cullen’s own flair for dramatic controversy, another artist who, perhaps, sees a lot of himself in the bandit he portrays. He iconoclastically delves into a fantastic side to the legend by painting him in drag presumably as a nod to the ever-evolving mythology of the criminal, which encompasses suggestions that Kelly Gang members were gay for a range of (mostly unsubstantiated) reasons, notably that they wore women’s clothing to avoid police detection.
The reach of the cult of Kelly is spectacular, with some reports that in northwestern Aboriginal culture, tribal legends have adopted the bushranger as a Christlike figure, who rises from the dead. Not unlike Paul Kelly’s song, Our Sunshine, (“burning bright but not for long/Lit up with a holy rage”) inspired by the Robert Drew 1991 novel of the same name.
The tribute is complete when it spans high art to kitsch, this self-described “widow’s son outlawed” has been made immortal. But there lacks a sigularity of his evolved character. From the gigantic statue of the figure looms over a museum in Glenrowan, to board games and breath mints his image lends itself to more and more randomly different expressions. His legend has borrowed the face of Mick Jagger in a 1970 bio-pic, and then again by snuffed-out talent Heath Ledger. The mythology only thickens over time becoming just as multifaceted and uneasy to pin down.
Ned Kelly magnetism for artists appears not be fading, he continues to haunt modern generations as his evocative legend is respun in wilder and more creative interpretations. Perhaps there is no one man behind the armour but rather a whole country staring back out of that mask.