Battle lines: the onward march of war art in Australia

By Ryan Johnston, Australian War Memorial

WAR art, like war, changes with time – but not as much as we might like to believe. So what is its function, and how has it evolved over time?

Ben Quilty, Captain S, after Afghanistan, 2012, oil on linen, 140 x 190cm. Australian War Memorial collection

Ben Quilty, Captain S, after Afghanistan, 2012, oil on linen, 140 x 190cm. Australian War Memorial collection

Two current exhibitions – the travelling show Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan and Conflict: Contemporary responses to war at UQ Art Museum chart the shifting role of both official and non-official war art. Unlike the Vietnam era, the focus today is less on direct protest and resistance than it is on uncovering the complex legacies of war for contemporary society.

On the eve of the centenary of the first world war (August 1) and in the wake of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, art continues to play a major role in understanding and remembering conflict. And at a time when discussion of commemoration in the Australian popular media is increasingly reductive and often jingoistic, the role of art is, if anything, more important than ever.

The Australian War Memorial continues to manage the official war art scheme which involves an artist being embedded with Australian military forces in conflicts or peacekeeping missions for the purpose of creatively recording and interpreting the Australian experience of war. The war art scheme is now Australia’s longest running art commissioning program. It is also one of few such schemes to remain active anywhere in the world.

Australia’s first war artist

In May 1917, artist and political cartoonist Will Dyson was retrospectively appointed Australia’s first official war artist.

Frustrated by Australia’s failure to emulate Canada’s official war art program (which commissioned a select group of artists to produce specific works during the first world war), he had volunteered to join the Australian Infantry Force as an artist and accepted an honorary position without pay. By the end of 1916 he was in France, where he witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting in history.


Will Dyson, Dead beat, the tunnel, Hill 60, 1917, brush and ink, charcoal on paper, 50.2 x 44.8 cm. Australian War Memorial collection

When Dyson’s grim but powerfully empathetic drawings of everyday life on the Western Front arrived back in London their significance was quickly understood.

Despite this slow start, the official war art scheme quickly gained momentum and a total of 15 artists had been appointed by the end of the first world war. The scheme continued apace during the second world war (42 appointments), slowed in Korea (two appointments) and then faltered in Vietnam.

While two artists went to Vietnam in 1967, the deep unpopularity of the war combined with the requirement for official artists to participate in active combat (for the only time in the scheme’s history) to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to identify willing participants. After lying dormant for more than 30 years, the scheme was reactivated in 1999, since which time 11 artists have been deployed to East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Australia.

Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan

In 2011 the Australian War Memorial appointed Australian artist Ben Quilty as the fourth and, as it turned out, final official war artist to Afghanistan. (He was preceded by Shaun Gladwell, Lyndell Brown, and Charles Green). Now on show in the travelling exhibition Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan, the paintings Quilty produced have much in common with Dyson’s work of a century earlier.


Ben Quilty, Air Commodore John Oddie, after Afghanistan, 2012, oil on linen, 140 x 140 cm. Australian War Memorial collection

Like Dyson, Quilty’s focus was neither major events nor heroic actions, but the experience of ordinary soldiers. And also like Dyson, Quilty’s deeply empathetic portraits emerged from the strong rapport he developed with the soldiers he met in the field. But while Dyson was concerned with the immediate experience of war, Quilty’s work focuses on its aftermath.

Here his familiar thick, layered and partially abstracted paintings convey the psychological impact of conflict. These works provide rare insight into the personal cost of war for a general public increasingly removed from actual military experience. In doing so they have assumed a powerful social agency.

Quilty’s commission has done much to shift post-traumatic stress disorder (a condition once rarely acknowledged) to the forefront of public discussion of war in Australia.

Conflict: Contemporary responses to war

Quilty’s work can also be seen alongside that of other official and non-official artists in Conflict: Contemporary responses to war, curated by Samantha Littley for the University of Queensland Art Museum.

The first of several contemporary war art exhibitions slated for the next year, this large show surveys the diversity of recent responses to war.


Shaun Gladwell, POV mirror sequence (Tarin Kowt) (digital still), 2009-10, 2 channel synchronised HD video, stereo audio, 16:9, 8 minutes 22 seconds. Australian War Memorial collection

Notable shifts marked in this show include a strong rise in new media practices. Using film and animation respectively, Australian artists Shaun Gladwell and Baden Pailthorpe explore warfare in the digital age. In particular, they trace conflict’s immediate public dissemination and complex mediation by traditional, online, and social media.

Both artists also point to the deep entanglement of military technologies with popular cultures (such as video games) and everyday life (such as the increasing civilian use of drones).

The Conflict exhibition also includes the colonisation of Australia in its curatorial statement and features often sardonic work by Indigenous artists including Joan Ross, Daniel Boyd and Fiona Foley. The exhibition wades into a long contested debate currently being amplified by the forthcoming centenary of the first world war: acknowledgement of colonisation as warfare.


Joan Ross, BBQ this Sunday, BYO 2011, digital animation, edition 17/20 5:01 min. Collection of The University of Queensland, courtesy of the artist and Bett Gallery, Hobart.

Also featured are a number of works that re-imagine the familiar form of the war memorial monument. (This is also the theme of another exhibition, Concrete, currently at the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne.) Melbourne-based artist Tom Nicholson’s Comparative monument (Palestine) (2012), is a proposal for a memorial to both the Australian Light Horse participation in the 1917 Battle of Beersheba, and the Palestinian exodus from the same city in 1948.


Tom Nicholson, Comparative monument (Palestine), 2012, offset printed posters, dimensions variable, Australian War Memorial collection. Courtesy of the artist

By remembering two very different but interwoven conflicts together, Nicholson highlights how the act of recalling one difficult history in the context of another can provide a platform for much-needed international unity into the future.

At a time when so many of our public commentators seem content to rehearse tired polemic, we can look to our artists for the nuanced analysis the difficult history of war deserves.

The next stop on the Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan tour is the John Curtin Gallery from August 2. Conflict: Contemporary responses to war shows at the UQ Art Museum until September 7.

The Conversation

Ryan Johnston works for the Australian War Memorial which manages Australia’s official war art scheme. The Memorial is also the organiser of the exhibition ‘Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan’.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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