Image: George Benson

Australia: Artists of the Great War, the pity and the propaganda

By Christopher Allen

For most of us in the prosperous nations of the developed world, the reality of war has become somewhat remote. The last couple of generations have been immensely fortunate in being spared the blight of the global conflagrations that decimated our forebears in the 20th century. When we encounter warfare, it is usually on television news, and even if when it involves our own troops, the numbers are small and the theatre of action is somewhere far from home.

We have not ceased to be fascinated by war, however: it continues to be the subject of countless films, and most recent mass-market productions have pursued ever more violent and extreme special effects in order to appeal to an audience desensitised by excessive stimulation. Even more potentially worrying is the effect of extreme video gaming: brutal violence is standard and there is one popular game that promises its players “infinite warfare”.

Australian official war artists (1920) by George Coates; Norman Lindsay’s German Monster (1917)

Australian official war artists (1920) by George Coates; Norman Lindsay’s German Monster (1917)

Quite apart from the obscenity, even the insanity, of suggesting that “infinite warfare” could be an attractive proposition, there is something inherently worrying about the de­realisation of extreme violence and its imagery in a virtual world without consequences or responsibility. If we allow minds to be trained through countless hours of rehearsing virtual savagery and brutality in a state of solipsistic introversion, we cannot be surprised if those minds are damaged in various ways.

If we can develop a familiarity with the thought patterns of foreign languages through repeated exposure to reading and conversations, if we gain mastery of a musical instrument or a craft with hundreds of hours of repetition, and if pilots practise the skills and reflexes of flying planes on flight simulators, can we really believe that what are effectively war simulators, training players to kill and maim without compunction and without reflection, have no effect on our instincts and feelings? The suggestion is even more implausible when we consider the potential effect on young and unformed minds.

Those with a commercial interest in the gaming business argue that there is no positive proof of an association between violent games and the actions of thugs, mass murderers, terrorists and others who display psychopathic behaviour. But the onus of proof is not in this case on those who suspect a link: it is on those who would counter-intuitively claim that in this one case, unlike every other we know of, repeated exposure to stimulus and response patterns and systematic habit-building have no effect on actual behaviour.

War and warlike behaviour are not things to be trifled with. War is one of the most extreme human experiences, in which people are faced with terrible choices, ultimate responsibility for themselves and others, and irremediable consequences. There is nothing more appallingly serious than exposing oneself or those under one’s command to the possibility of death, as all soldiers and officers know or soon learn.

The National Gallery’s exhibition, one of several that different museums across the country have been holding to commemorate the rolling centenary of World War I, has been put together under the direction of David Hansen, a professor in the Australian National University’s department of art history, who has been assisted by a number of his research students.

The resulting collection of work, although compact and fitting in one large room, includes many unfamiliar images and illustrates the full range of the involvement of artists in the process of war, from encouraging participation to documenting life at the front, evoking mourning and commemoration, and even providing the precise anatomical imagery required for reconstructive surgery.

In every case it is striking that drawing and painting remain capable of achieving much more than the camera. In some cases — the anatomical illustrations, for example — we can see that drawing and watercolour can make much clearer discriminations than photography. In others it is because of the artist’s ability to capture, recall and synthesise human actions, attitudes and gestures.

The exhibition begins with recruitment posters, starting with a relatively straightforward one like Harry Weston’s Get a move on, old man! (1915) in which a wounded soldier, with bayonet fixed, implies that the viewer of the poster has perhaps been a bit tardy in taking up arms, but will clearly do the right thing. A couple of years later, however, after desperately high casualties and the failure of attempts to bring in conscription, the tone grows more urgent, even hysterical. Norman Lindsay’s Quick! has a much more seriously wounded digger, seemingly unable to stand, calling for help while his friend is about to be bayoneted by German soldiers.

Lindsay’s grotesque print of an ape-like Hun menacing the world with bloody claws was pasted up secretly by night in 1917, a wordless image that testifies to the dehumanisation of the enemy in the age of mass warfare. It is interesting to consider that when World War II began, and looking back on the scepticism that tends to be provoked by excessive claims, it was decided that British propaganda should always be firmly grounded in truth.

This first wall ends with a dramatic cartoon by Will Dyson in which a monstrous figure of death stands before the sickly and exhausted figure of the Kaiser and asks, “Any orders today, Sire?” Dyson, an Australian who was close to the Lindsay family, was by now a very successful cartoonist in London and would soon become Australia’s first war artist.

The second wall is entirely devoted to Dyson’s drawings and prints of the war. As Hansen points out in the catalogue, war artists were constrained by fairly strict guidelines and could not directly record the carnage of the trenches or the horror of mutilated bodies. Even dead bodies are rarely shown, and those that appear in the present exhibition are perhaps acceptable because they are treated in a semi-allegorical rather than a documentary mode.

Nonetheless, Dyson conveys a powerful sense of the grim realities of trench warfare, including the exhaustion, the boredom and something of the fear. In one case we see a soldier collapsed in sleep, in another reading by candlelight, and in another, The Misery of rest camps, staring hopelessly out of a tent with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

In other images there are moments of humour, as in his portrait of an officer friend (Mind asserting itself …)in which the slim and dapper Herbertson, with cigarette holder and monocle, interrogates an oafishly heavy-set German prisoner in his fluent German. The same subject is addressed more seriously in another image that sets the prisoner and the interrogator on the same level and in the same plane, and creates almost a sense of intimacy between them.

The German prisoners provide Dyson with an opportunity to reveal the physical toll of the war more explicitly, since images of the defeated enemy could not be interpreted as demoralising. Thus Wine of victory shows a column of exhausted and wounded German prisoners dragging themselves towards us. Here, as in the pictures of our men in the trenches, we can see the enormous advantage of the draughtsman over the photographer: one of Dyson’s great skills is to grasp and understand typical actions and postures, to remember them and then to put them together in significant and moving compositions.

Dyson’s wall ends with one of the rare images of a dead soldier: The Wild colonial boy, stretched out on the ground beneath a dark and wildly stormy sky. Next to it on the third wall is Hilda Rix Nicholas’s These gave the world away (1917), conceived soon after her young husband had died within weeks of reaching the front in November 1916. The tone is quieter and more elegiac, as befits the title, taken from one of Rupert Brooke’s most famous poems. Brooke, who had died in the Aegean as early as 1915, exalts the nobility of these youthful deaths, but points to something that would have been in the mind of the artist: that they gave away not only their own lives, but also all hope of progeny.

The fourth wall includes a variety of pictures of camp life and hospitals as well as a number of portraits. It begins with a small hospital interior by George Lambert, which seems to hint at a romantic relationship between a young soldier about to be discharged and the nurse who has been looking after him. Another hospital interior by Arthur Streeton is more concerned with the structure of the space and the architecture, although it has been animated by figures carefully placed to suggest calm efficiency.

A grimmer note of realism is rather unexpectedly found in a third hospital interior by Rupert Bunny, not a painter known for this kind of subject: foreshortened figures of patients waiting for the clinic crowd the foreground, while in the lit space of the background a scrawny half-naked figure is stretched out to be X-rayed. Several other images of hospitals and military camps are by Iso Rae, and a small oil painting by Septimus Power shows a horse and rider labouring through deep mud with cannon shells in specially designed saddle bags.

Among portraits there is George Bell’s anonymous Digger and a group portrait of most of Australia’s war artists by George Coates, who curiously does not include a self-portrait. The most moving of these images, however, is the posthumous picture that John Longstaff painted of his own son, a handsome young man whose eyes are shadowed in darkness.

The two central cabinets contain smaller or ephemeral items: notebooks, wartime publications — one has a Digger’s poem on the horror of watching a Turkish soldier dying — and even notes from a field dental hospital by Tom Roberts, accompanied by sketches of patients. This makes a natural transition to the last cabinet, although because Roberts was writing for an army publication, his tone is generally cheery and even though we realise by the end of the piece that he is talking about reconstructive surgery, the two pictures illustrate relatively minor cases that have been successfully dealt with.

The second cabinet, which contains watercolours by Daryl Lindsay destined only for the eyes of surgeons, reveals the dreadful truth of the damage done to young soldiers by shrapnel. Bodies were regularly blown into fragments by the relentless barrages of artillery, or cut down by machineguns. But shrapnel was capable of inflicting a particularly horrible kind of wound, leaving living men with monstrous disfiguration. Modern plastic surgery was developed to give these poor men some chance of a normal life, and artists, as in the Renaissance, played a vital part in this medical endeavour.

Published by The Australian

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