When John Kelly was transported from Tipperary to Tasmania in 1841, for stealing pigs, he couldn’t have imagined that 170 years later there’d be an exhibition of paintings of one of his offspring at Dublin’s plush Museum of Modern Art (until 27 January). Yet here he is, Ned, the 19th-century Oz-born bushranger and cop-killer, as imagined by the Australian painter Sidney Nolan (1917–1992).
Painted in the 1940s, Nolan’s Ned Kelly series deploys a childlike style to capture the criminal Kelly Gang’s 1880 shoot-out with police.
In each painting Kelly wears his mysterious mask and hovers over the bloody action, more motif than man, as if observing his own canonisation into Oz legend.
The exhibition reminds one how much the Kelly story is a creation of art rather than reality. Artists have long been drawn to the romance of the Kelly story. Peter Carey won the Booker Prize for his True History of the Kelly Gang. Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger have played Kelly in swashbuckling movies.
With that featureless mask, Ned has become a blank slate on to which creatives and philosophers project their ideals. Whether Aussie Robin Hood or anti-colonial rebel, his legend says more about us and our needs than about him and his deeds.
Indeed, Nolan, with his knowingly naive paintings of a helmeted hero of the Oz outback, is father to Ned the legend as much as John was to Ned the man. As Andrew Sayers of the National Museum of Australia says, ‘Nolan’s Kelly has become Ned Kelly.’