Home » The power of a picture

The power of a picture

Last weekend, along with half a million others I went to look at the Renaissance show in Canberra. For me this was a good thing, having an insatiable appetite for gold frames and anyone with a halo. However, for my companions, it was a bit of a trial. Apart from the slow-moving conga line crowd, the over-supply of Madonna and Child pictures proved too much for them.

On exiting they declared in unison, ‘What is it with the Mary and Jesus thing?’ (it will be obvious from this comment that we are not Catholic). This aspect of the show didn’t bother me – I took the pictures for what they were – stories told in paint. Granted, there are a lot of images of Mary and Jesus sitting playing, Mary nursing, and Jesus looking smug or entirely confused in a miniature adult body with oversized head. There are also images of tortured saints and various bible stories enacted with people in long robes of blue and red. As you would expect. I saw these works as powerful conveyers of religious and moral story for a largely illiterate, part pagan audience. Each painting told a story, sent a message and reinforced specific social attitudes – something the Catholic Church has done so well for hundreds of years!

For much needed visual respite my companions turned into the new Nolan display, the one housing the Ned Kelly series of works. Each of the images was viewed in turn, comprehended and understood. They read each of the labels which courtesy of the curator, offers the viewer two sources of information – part of the transcript of the trial from which Nolan painted the scene and a few lines from an interview with Nolan in about each work.

And as I watched the people in the room, it occurred to me that Nolan’s Ned Kelly story is doing for us exactly what the plethora of Madonna and Child paintings, tortured saint or genesis painting did for those living hundreds of years before. Nolan is doing more than tell us a story. He is forming our attitudes around the story. He is creating our opinions – he is shaping our beliefs. And at the same time he is making us compliant as we fall into step with his version of this story.

Ahh, the power of a picture! Performing such an important social and political role – where would society be without such coercion?

4 Responses to “The power of a picture”

  1. Lorraine Edney says:

    We were interested in your thoughts comparing Nolan’s Ned Kelly series and the renaissance paintings; we don’t see the connection between a murdering bush ranger and the Madonna and disciples? How was Nolan coercing us with his painting; was he being dishonest?

  2. carolebest says:

    Thanks for your comment! Apologies if I have not made myself clear.

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that there was a connection in the stories themselves – only in the way cultural icons are created and audience understanding forged.

    For example, artists (using the tools of halo, gold leaf and that passive-faced countenance) create the idea that Mary is holy and sacred. I don’t mean they all got together and had a big talkfest about the way they should paint her – but over time conventions are established and repeated over and over. Our recognition and understanding of Mary is directly forged by the way she is painted. She has been created to play or act out a very specific role in a series of stories. That has been a powerful tool in how we understand motherly love and helped define the role of women in society. Hugely influential!

    Likewise Nolan creates Ned Kelly as modern icon; as riotous cowboy wearing his trademark black armour, huge eyes staring out at us. That painted character in black armour has become a symbol for the Aussie-style freedom fighter. Nolan retells the Glenrowan incident step by step; chops it up into bit-sized pieces, so that the event itself becomes etched into our memories. Just like a bible story.

    Ned Kelly is one of the most famous Australians of all time, I say, largely thanks to this series of works. As a bushranger, he was small fry compared to many of the other violent gangs that roamed NSW and VIC during the gold rushes of the 1860s. But they have not been immortalised in paint and their stories aren’t etched into our psyche. But this story is and its power can’t be denied in influencing how we think about Kelly and how we forge our cultural identities. Again, hugely influential!

    I’m not saying that Nolan set out to immortalise Kelly, only that painted stories are powerful and always coercive!

  3. […] we expect it, search for it even. Such effective type casting – beginning with the whole Mary and Jesus thing which I’ve talked about before in several other […]

  4. […] ‘sun’ and the little boy’s golden halo. It cleverly references those thousands of Madonna and Child images I have written about in the […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *