More than a century after his execution, bushranger Ned Kelly continues to inspire a distinctly Australian iconography.
For the thousands of visitors now streaming into the State Library of Victoria’s newly opened Ned Kelly exhibit in Melbourne, little if any attention is given to the bronze statue standing in the forecourt outside. It is of the library’s founder, Justice Redmond Barry, who, in sentencing the 25-year-old outlaw to death in 1880, released him to an afterlife of immortality. Perhaps the irony would not have been lost on Ned Kelly himself, who quipped famously on the gallows, “Such is life.”
Where better a place, then, to examine the legend of Ned Kelly, and how a cultural outsider became the ultimate insider, now institutionalized in print, paint and pixels? Where Gregor Jordan’s upcoming film brings unprecedented attention back on Australia’s most famous bushranger, attempting to find his pulse, the library show “Kelly Culture: Reconstructing Ned Kelly,” which runs until May 25, is more interested in the idea of him, and how this has proliferated in the 123 years since his death – “looking at how Ned Kelly has continued to be present within our literature, our music, our performing arts, our cinema, our visual arts,” explains co-curator Clare Williamson, “and what this says about us.”
Indeed, that this sometime horse thief and murderer was able to transcend the grimy details of his past to become the folk hero he is today says as much about Australia as it does about the son of a transported Irish convict brought up in north-eastern Victoria. Kelly the myth quickly outstripped Kelly the man. And with its marketing pitch, “you can kill a man but not a legend,” Jordan’s film, based on Robert Drewe’s 1991 novel Our Sunshine, continues the tradition, idealizing as much as illuminating Kelly. “The first Australians were convicts, outcasts from England,” says the director, “and so I guess there’s a major Australian ideal of cynicism and a suspicion of authority. Someone like Ned Kelly really embodies that spirit.”
At the State Library of Victoria, the surprisingly small husk of that spirit – the plough-board armor Kelly wore before being felled by police bullets at the siege of Glenrowan – is displayed for the first time in its entirety since his capture. It’s an appropriate centerpiece for an exhibition which seeks to show how Kelly became a postmodern hero, an empty vessel for Australia’s creative imagination. While Australians “know bits of the story like the Stations of the Cross,” as novelist Peter Carey says in the exhibition, the rest has been up for grabs. “There’s that void or space that we inhabit,” says Williamson, “to create and invent and make up stories.”
Into the void, artists have willingly leapt. “Look then, I’m melting now in drops of blood,” the bushranger says in the final moments of Douglas Stewart’s 1943 verse play Ned Kelly. “Let it soak into the hungry earth, and pay my debts and grow what crops you like.” Entertainingly, “Kelly Culture” charts this extraordinarily fertile field, from the folk ballads published and sung during his lifetime, the bushranger melodramas in the decades after his death, to The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), possibly the world’s first feature film, which exported his story offshore. In the creative industry that has sprung up in his wake, an 1879 letter (Kelly’s 58-page Jerilderie manifesto) can spawn a Robert Drewe novel which can spawn a Paul Kelly song which can spawn a Heath Ledger movie.
But before becoming a postmodern hero, Kelly had to become a modernist one. Artist Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) claimed his own connection to the 19th-century outlaw – his policeman grandfather was part of the manhunt for the Kelly gang back in the late-1870s. But it was while journeying back through so-called “Kelly country” with writer Max Harris in 1945 that Nolan saw the universality of the bushranger\’s story. As Harris put it, “We are all Neds in our own way, invisible, turning to run for cover and then launching an attack on authority from our own positions.” Through an outsider’s point of view, and a bold black helmet, Nolan could critically frame the Australian landscape. His Kelly series of the following year would be the first of many to explore what he saw as Australia\’s fugitive place in the world.
In the process, Nolan’s iconography introduced the Kelly story to a new generation of artists. Decades later, his painted telegraphic mask would find its way into the Aboriginal dreaming of East Kimberley artist Freddie Timms, and onto the world stage of the 2000 Olympic Games opening ceremony, whose dancing Neds were as much about Nolan as Kelly. “In using the black square,” says co-curator Allison Holland, “Nolan has created a space for us to play with the myth as much as we want.”
It was seeing Nolan’s paintings in Melbourne in 1962 that “knocked my socks off me and burnt into my brain,” Peter Carey recalls in a video accompanying the State Library show. These works, along with the Jerilderie Letter, were the inspiration for his Booker Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), which audaciously reanimated the Kelly myth. “He was not the Monitor,” Carey writes, “he was a man of skin and shattered bone and blood squelching in his boots.”
And so, filtered through art and literature, Ned Kelly returns in 2003 – this time in the guise of celluloid. For a man whose life seemed to unspool in a three-act moving image, it is hardly surprising that Kelly has constantly made his way to the big screen. More surprising is that a great film has yet to be made of his life. The last, Tony Richardson’s hippy-folksy 1970 take, made the fatal mistake of casting Englishman Mick Jagger in the title role. “I think people hated it so much that they considered the film of Ned Kelly hadn’t really been made yet,” says director Jordan.
And with each telling, the man seems to disappear from view. Visiting Jordan’s set in country Victoria last year, curator Holland walked past Heath Ledger’s Kelly without even noticing him – “well he had a big beard on, Drizabone and a hat, and it was very dark,” she recalls. At the same time, Kelly’s cultural importance has grown with each passing year. “In this increasingly globalized society, people are trying to find their local stories,” says Holland. “So it’s the global versus the local. And Ned Kelly is a local hero.” This coming Saturday, with the world premiere of Ned Kelly in Melbourne, the bushranger goes global. Such is life.