Nick Mitzevich, Director of the NGA, says its mandate is to share the NGA collection with the nation. “Last year 500,000 Australians saw part of the collection in small and large cities across Australia. The response in Perth to this series spurs us on to be even more ambitious in bringing works to WA.”

Nolan’s pared down image of a gun-totting Ned Kelly astride a horse in a vast landscape, the visor of his black armour vacant, is firmly entrenched in the Australian psyche. Titled Ned Kelly, the work is one of 27 in the Ned Kelly series Nolan created during 1946-47 while living at the farmhouse of noted art patrons John and Sunday Reed at Heide near Eaglemont in Victoria, now the site of the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Nolan later said the works were inspired by “Kelly’s own words, and Rousseau, and sunlight.” Ned (Edward) Kelly left a remarkable part-personal, part-political 56-page document known as the Jerilderie Letter, providing a unique insight into his life and grievances against a corrupt police force, who took an astounding two years to bring him to justice. Kelly attempted to have this quasi-manifesto published, before he was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol at the age of 25. Influenced by this, the Australian landscape and his exposure to European artists through the Reed’s extensive library, Nolan created a visual voice of his own.

Mitzevich says the series immediately captured the imagination of the public when it was first shown at Velasquez Gallery in Melbourne in 1948, and has influenced artists across generations since. “He was such a radical artist and a great storyteller. The works are both pictorial and abstract, minimalist, yet with narrative, so there’s these opposites coming in to play in his practice. He certainly chartered new territory.”

It was the series Sunday Reed could not part with when Nolan demanded the return of all his works. The two were involved in a ménage â trois in the 1940s, with Reed’s husband fully aware of their affair. When their relationship soured, Sunday Reed returned the majority of Nolan’s works to him, but refused to hand over the Ned Kelly series. The NGA purchased one of the series in 1970, and Sunday Reed eventually donated the remainder to the NGA in 1977. Just one work in the series of 27 remains in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

 The defence of Aaron Sherritt, 1946, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 121.20 x 90.70cms, by Sidney Nolan. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977. National Gallery of Australia.

The exhibition is intentionally paired with a separate show of earlier, traditional Australian art, underlining the dramatic jump in style Nolan made from others before him such as Streeton and Heyson. Ground breaking at the time was Nolan’s use of enamel house paint as a medium and his moody depictions of Australia – a departure from the sun drenched depictions of the Australian Impressionists.

Deborah Hart, Head of Australian Art at the NGA, says she’d love visitors to imagine what Australia was like in the late 1940s when the series was created. “Of course there were other artists around the same time, like Drysdale, who were forging forward with new ideas, but I think Nolan created something quite extraordinary for the time. It was post war and a time of tension when he was staying at Heide with the Reeds. Nolan, then in his twenties, had absconded from the army, so there are parallels between Kelly, also in his twenties, who was on the run from authorities.”

Hart says Nolan’s grandfather was also part of the police force who went in search of Kelly. “This was recent family history when Nolan was painting the series, so it wasn’t a remote story. The works also show he read Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter in detail, which allowed him to elaborate the story.”

“I hope when people come to AGWA to see the works they look at them with fresh eyes. I think people are very familiar with one iconic image of Ned Kelly on his horse, but there is so much more going on. He really does treat it like a dramatic narrative, and there’s the way he captures emotions, such as one of Margaret Skillion, a family member, quilting the armour. Though it’s pure fabrication, it brings a tenderness into the series. In terms of the history of Australian art I think Nolan injected some real energy and boldness into this depiction of our own place, and revolutionised the way we imagine this national antihero.”

Ned Kelly is on show at the Art Gallery of WA until 12 November.

See a full transcript of the Jerilderie Letter at the National Museum Australia here.