Ned Kelly's reputation as Australia's most infamous outlaw may vastly exceed his actual crime spree. But the renown of Sidney Nolan, the modern artist who chronicled Kelly's legend in paint, is far more modest than it should be. Kelly (1855-80) has been compared to Jesse James, even though his mere 20 months as a bandit hardly stack up against James's 15 years. On the other hand, nobody has ever called Nolan (1917-92) the "Down Under Philip Guston" or the "Aussie Malcolm Morley," even though his talent was big enough for both. "Sidney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Paintings," at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 4 (the show doesn't travel), should help gain him the regard he deserves north of the equator.
In 1946, when Nolan began these 27 Ned Kelly paintings, he was a journeyman painter who'd worked as a commercial artist in Melbourne in the 1930s. Nolan had always considered himself an avant-gardist, which, in those days in Australia, meant knowing who Picasso was. He was still searching for a way to make distinctly Australian modern art when he recalled the tales of Kelly he'd heard from his grandfather, one of the policemen who'd pursued the outlaw. Ned Kelly was a 23-year-old horse thief when Constable Fitzpatrick went to his homestead in 1878 to arrest him. According to Kelly, the boorish cop tried to molest Kelly's sister. A fight ensued, in which Fitzpatrick was wounded. Warrants for attempted murder were issued, and Kelly and his brother fled into the wilds of southeastern Australia. Over the next two years, their gang robbed banks, charmed hostages and bamboozled the police, killing several in the process. But the Kellys -- who thought public sentiment against the police would protect them -- overreached. In a showdown at Glenrowan, Ned Kelly -- wearing armor homemade from plowshares -- was shot in the legs and captured. On Nov. 11, 1880, he was hanged.
The armor's helmet became part of Nolan's unforgettable Kelly icon: a flat, primitively rendered figure, usually accompanied by a floating, yellow-stocked long rifle, wearing a black box on his head with a horizontal slit for the eyes. Nolan's drawing of Kelly -- and supporting characters like Mrs. Skillion, who sewed a soft blue lining into Kelly's helmet -- is about the only primitive aspect of his paintings. His color is both emotionally charged (heavy, almost vegetative blue-to-yellow skies) and subtly nuanced (never the same blue for a constable's uniform). Nolan's enamel paint sits almost psychedelically on the surface of his modest-size panels, but it conveys as much spatial depth as anything ever scumbled into a big, academic history painting. And Nolan has a special gift for evoking moistly cool mornings, blistering hot days and the frontier atavism of 19th-century Australia.
Nolan based himself in London by 1954, and even lived in New York for two brief periods, in the '50s and '60s. But he exhibited rarely in America, and the Ned Kelly paintings have never been shown here before. Nolan's faux naive figures reminiscent of Henri Rousseau, his photo-influenced details like Mrs. Skillion's face as she lovingly lines the armor and his native's empathy for the landscape add up to a visual poetry practically unequaled in modern art from any hemisphere.
These are days of a general impoverishment in contemporary painting, when huge, hollow claims are almost automatically made for the latest American or European tyro to concoct gigantic pictures about sanctioned subjects like "the body" or "identity." To see what indelible images an artist working almost 50 years ago, 10,000 miles from Paris or New York, was able to create from a provincial tale is a profound lesson in geographical humility. If Sidney Nolan is still a discovery at this late date, it's fitting that he's such a breathtaking one.