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UNSW’s Dr Andrew Yip has helped reveal the mystery face behind the Ned Kelly mask in one of Sidney Nolan’s most famous paintings.

Yip, from the Laboratory for Innovation in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (iGLAM) at UNSW Art & Design, is part of a team of experts who worked in collaboration with the scientific research centre, Australian Synchrotron, to visualise the pigments buried underneath layers of paint in Nolan’s 1945 painting Ned Kelly, “Nobody knows anything about my case but myself”.

Yip worked with Paula Dredge, Head Paintings Conservator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, (AGNSW) and Kendrah Morgan, Curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art, who had conducted X-Ray Fluorescence imaging of the painting with scientist Daryl Howard at the Synchrotron, to identify the painting’s elements down to the resolution of the finest brush stroke. With powerful processing, previously invisible layers of colour were revealed to show a face beneath the now famous Ned Kelly helmet.

“The scans revealed a face behind the mask covered in red, yellow and blue dots that raises questions about the meanings of Nolan’s Kelly series,” says Yip. “We were able to recolour the scans to reconstruct how the portrait originally appeared before the mask was painted over it, by directly referencing Nolan’s own pigments, which are preserved in the conservation labs of the AGNSW.”  

The newly discovered portrait has similarities with a self portrait Nolan painted in 1943, while he was in the Australian Army. In Self portrait, now in the AGNSW collection, he wears strips of blue, yellow and red across his forehead, suggesting an artist’s war paint. By 1945 he had absconded from the Army and was hiding from the authorities. Nolan’s identification with Australia’s best known outlaw is suggested by the title of the work, in Kelly’s own words, and the portrait under the mask.


Digital colour recreation of first stage of the painting based on X-ray fluorescence.

The original Ned Kelly painting and a virtual reality reconstruction of the images underneath the surface developed by Yip, Dredge and Matt Nix, the digital designer at AGNSW, are on show at Heide for the next two weeks.

Displayed in Heide I, the former home of Melbourne art benefactors John and Sunday Reed, where Nolan lived in the early 1940s, the VR work allows visitors to step into the library, a room where Nolan spent time researching his paintings.

“Viewers can stand in the house where the painting was made, and using the VR headset peer through the painting to peel back the layers of Kelly’s mask and reveal the portrait underneath,” Yip says.

Visitors can also experience intimate photos of Nolan’s circle of friends, sourced from Heide’s collection, and explore more recoloured synchrotron scans through a virtual archive.

“The library is a really significant, ghostly space that’s pregnant with meaning – Nolan painted the Kelly series in the adjacent room."

“I think VR is a really valuable way to bring art history to life and tell important stories, as long as it is done sensitively. This is also an example of how science can be used to convey the significance of art to a wider audience.”

The VR exhibition will be on display until 14 May at Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art alongside Ned Kelly, “Nobody knows anything about my case but myself” (1945) and Kelly at the Mine (1946-47) with a selection of Nolan memorabilia in commemoration of the centenary of Sidney Nolan’s birth.

The exhibition is presented with support from UNSW iGLAM, Australian Synchrotron and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.