The life of Ned Kelly had been a recurring preoccupation for Sir Sidney Nolan throughout his career. From his earliest images of scenes from the life of the helmeted bushranger and his gang, to the "fluttering, sensitive wraith" of the Kelly of the 1960s paintings, the artist built Kelly's iron mask and armoured body into a synecdoche for Kelly as both man and legend.
In this triptych, Nolan telescopes his career of making paintings of Kelly. The bushranger's eyes are visible through the small apertures in two of the helmets, pitiful and vulnerable on one side, angry and vengeful on the other: small indications of humanity through the overwhelming blackness of the armour. "Not only does the helmet allow the Kelly legend to be told with the minimum of anecdotal elaboration, but it is also used as an icon of multiple emotions. Through the aperture the eyes blaze with revenge, droop with regret, are haunted with remorse or fade into weary introspection." (E. Lynn, Sidney Nolan, London, 1967, p.29)
The head, beak and eyes of a chicken float above the central Kelly mask in the triptych. First inspired to paint fowl after seeing a flock owned by Lord McAlpine in Hampshire, Nolan included images of roosters in his Oedipus series as a "personification of masculine omnipotence". In these, "The vainglorious, strutting of this prize specimen is done with a fluidity of brushwork which makes this barnyard creature a joy to observe." (T.G. Rosenthal, Sidney Nolan, London, 2002, p.200).
Plucked of his comb and wattle, the bird in this triptych is stripped of its omnipotence, perhaps an analogy for the downfall of Kelly, who was sentenced to death in 1880 for police killings and his role in the siege at Glenrowan.