A Better Look – the man in the iron mask

The following post is in response to a writing challenge from Matthew of Normal Happenings.  The challenge was “What is a work of art…that you liked when you were younger, but enjoy even more now in the light of additional knowledge and experience?”.

I grew up with Ned Kelly.  He was hanging in the lounge room.

This was, of course, about 100 years after he hung for real in Melbourne Gaol, but to my childish mind his presence was as real as that of Astro Boy, Paddington Bear and many others who also made their impression upon me from their regular appearances in the lounge room.  But unlike those other people, who appeared on the TV for 15-30 minutes then vanished, Ned Kelly was a permanent fixture.


The real Ned Kelly was, of course, an Australian bushranger who’d captured the Australian imagination both during his life and for a century after it.  He was an Irish separatist who rallied the people to his side with his brazen bank robberies, open defiance of police and clever decision to never rob from his own.  Of course in reality stories are never that simple, but it was the fake Kelly, the national image of Kelly, that Sydney Nolan captured so iconically on the picture that hung from my parent’s lounge room.


It’s one of a famous series of 27 paintings – the Kelly series, painted by Australian artist Sydney Nolan between 1946 and 1947.  The one that my parents brought is titled “Death of Constable Scanlon”.  As a kid, I loved it.

Even before I knew anything about Ned Kelly, I knew one thing about that man with the gun in the iron mask.  He was hard.  He was larger than life, he was determined.  He was a hero.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realised he wasn’t actually made of metal, he was wearing armour.  But that was still plenty cool – he wears a mask like a superhero!  HE’S A REAL LIFE SUPERHERO!

Sure he’d shot a policeman, but it was obviously self-defence, because he didn’t look like he’d enjoyed it.  He looked like a teacher saying “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed”.

Then of course we moved, and the print faded.  It got hung in a place of decidedly less significance, until one day it wasn’t hanging anywhere at all.  I’d forgotten about the Kelly painting, until one day I went to visit the National Gallery in Canberra.  As I was flicking through the list of exhibits I realised – they had the entire Kelly series, including the original of the copy that hung in my parent’s lounge room.  I had to see it, and so I saw.  And now it’s official:

The Kelly series are some of my favourite paintings of all time.

It’s not until looking at the paintings as an adult, and reading a bit about the series, that I began to understand what Nolan was going for.  Nolan wasn’t going for the literal truth, he was going for the iconic – he was painting the simple truth about the Kelly story that has captured my countrymen for so may years.  In each painting Kelly is larger than life, dominating every frame.  His actions and gestures are simple and Christ-like.  It was that simplicity and hero-status that I latched on to as a child, but as an adult I find something almost chilling about the simplicity with which this very complicated tale is told.


Take the painting that my parents bought – “The Death of Constable Scanlon”:


In the story of Kelly’s life, this is the turning point.  Before this moment, Kelly had been a bank robber, cattle thief and folk hero.  After it, he was a murderer – and while the public still loved him (no-one liked police), he went from minor annoyance to public enemy number one.  The government threw resources at him and, of course, you can’t run forever.  Eventually he was captured and hung for murder with the famous last words “Such is Life”.

In this painting, Nolan somehow manages to capture the complexity of the moment in very simple terms.  The human figures are stylised, though the horse is realistic.  Scanlon sports no injury, his death is quite sanitised, but by placing him in the foreground (and distorting the perspective vis a vie his horse) he gives the event a feeling of significance and weight. Overhead, dark clouds blot out the blue sky.

And then of course there’s Kelly.  Kelly’s eyes are sad, his hand rests on the butt of his gun.  There is no anger in Kelly, and no regret – only sadness.  It is like Kelly knows that this is his turning point, but also that it could not be avoided.  This was his fate.

I don’t know what drew Nolan to paint the Kelly story.  Ultimately Kelly was an unrepentant murderer.  But then, what has drawn anyone to the Kelly story?  Maybe that’s what Nolan was trying to express with this series.  And maybe it is something that I understood better when I first looked at that iron man with the gun, back when I was a child.



One thought on “A Better Look – the man in the iron mask

  1. Pingback: Lovely Day | Daily Inkling – Normal Happenings

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