War, Art and the Politics of Commemoration in Australia

By Margaret Hutchison

Art occupies an important place in Australia’s commemoration of war. It plays a significant role in the way the nation’s participation in conflict is represented and how it is remembered. While war has traditionally been seen as a death knell for the arts, in Australia it has had the opposite effect. The Australian War Memorial’s art program is one of the country’s most enduring commemorative practices and one of its largest commissioning programs. In fact, the government has sent artists to almost every conflict in which Australia has been involved since the First World War, a tradition that continues today.

The idea of using art to interpret and commemorate war was first raised by Will Dyson, an expatriate Australian cartoonist living and working in London. In August 1916, he wrote to Andrew Fisher, Australia’s High Commissioner in London, offering his services as an artist and suggesting, “that it would be of interest to the people of Australia of today and in the future to see sketches illustrating the relationship of the Australians to the war and interpreting the feelings and character of the Australian troops in France”.

Dyson’s letter was the first formal suggestion that art might be used to interpret and preserve an Australian experience of the war. It also ushered in an art program that was, and continues to be, nationally focused – one that emphasises the hiring of Australian artists, the creation of art in theatres of combat where Australian troops are fighting and, increasingly, experiences and legacies of war at home.

Each generation of official artists has interpreted war in different ways, reflecting contemporary concerns about Australia’s role in conflict. During the First World War, there was a desire among artists and those commissioning them, such as Fisher, Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and later historian, and John Treloar, director of the Australian War Memorial, that Australia’s war effort should be differentiated from others within the British Empire.

Initially, official artists were stationed for up to three months in theatres where Australians were fighting and tasked with creating images of what they observed of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) while there. Sketches and paintings from this time present an eclectic array of vivid snapshots of life at the front, candid images of soldiers’ experiences of war, such as Dyson’s Dead Beat (1917) which depicts an exhausted Australian asleep in full kit near Hill 60.

After the war, Bean and Treloar began to acquire artworks that captured significant episodes in Australia’s military history. Their decisions about what to commemorate in paint reveal a privileging of images of the AIF on the battlefield. Lambert’s iconic canvas of Australian troops climbing the cliffs at Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April, Anzac, the landing 1915 (1920-22), is one example of the thematic war paintings produced in aftermath of the conflict. Such images complemented and consolidated an emerging national narrative of the war that was based around the fighting capacity of Australian soldiers.

In recent decades, Australian commemorative culture has embraced the trauma of war. As Christina Twomey argues, this trend has reinvented the Anzac myth for a new generation because it speaks to deeply held concerns about war and suffering. Official war art has reflected these concerns, seen, for instance, in Ben Quilty’s paintings from his time as an official war artist in Afghanistan in 2011.

Quilty’s portraits of Australian soldiers provide an important representation not only of masculinity in the Australian Defence Force, but also of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the lasting impact and legacies of war. In Captain S after Afghanistan he captures the strength as well as fragility of soldiers and the psychological impact of conflict: “I wanted Captain S to be naked, showing not only his physical strength but also the frailty of human skin, suggesting the darkness of the emotional weight of the war”. Quilty has also captured the effect of war trauma on soldiers’ families in his work.  These images include a portrait of Leesa Kwok, whose husband, James Tanner, served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan and who now suffers from PTSD.

The official art collection also reflects continuing debates about Australia’s war history. While the Memorial still refuses to recognise the frontier wars (1788-1930s), in 2017 it acquired Rover Thomas’s Ruby Plains Massacre 1 (1985). The image is part of series entitled ‘Killing Times’ focusing on the frontier violence in the Kimberley. It represents the aftermath of a massacre where a station owner killed several Aboriginal men for butchering one of his livestock. Thomas’s work crucially introduces frontier violence to the national war art collection – although it is too early to tell whether this acquisition signifies the beginning of a more comprehensive inclusion of the frontier wars in the art collection, or indeed in the Memorial’s galleries.

Over the last century, Australia has developed a tradition of official war art, one that has played an important role in commemorating the country’s involvement in war. But memory is constantly evolving, shaped and reshaped by successive generations to suit the needs of the present. The official war art collection reflects these changes, representing our continuing conversations about conflict, shifting priorities of commemoration, and the politicised nature of Australia’s remembrance of war.

 

Margaret Hutchison is a lecturer in History in the School of Arts at the Australian Catholic University, Brisbane. Her book, Painting War: A history of Australia’s First World War art scheme, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2018.  She is co-editor of a collection of essays, Portraits of Remembrance: Painting, Memory and the First World War, which will be published with the University of Alabama Press in 2019.

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