Wednesday, 20 March 2013

War Artists

Some weeks ago we went to the Australian War memorial. We had been once before, but barely made it around the First World War section. It's a big museum and there is a lot to take in. This time we concentrated on the Second World War section. I have somewhat of a fascination with war art, so that was my main focus.

Munitions workers by Lyndon Dadswell
This sculpture by Lyndon Dadswell presetns the wartime labourer as a heroic figure and reflects the need for both men and women to shoulder the burden of munitions productions. The simplified forms and exaggerated proportions of the figures convey a sense of permananece and strength, reminiscent of the work of Socialist artists.

There are examples of work on show from a number of prisoners of war who turned their hand to creative arts. For example, an embroidered blanket worked by Corporal Cliff Gatenby, who was captured on Crete.

Corporal Cliff Gatenby's embroidered blanket
In Stalag 383, Gatenby covered his army-issue blanket with embroidery 'for something to do', although he had never sewn before. He began by sewing his name and number on the corner of the blanket followed by a kangaroo. Thread came from old pullovers, socks, scarves and towels. By the end of the war the blanket was entirely covered and included scenes of his camp and his service in the the Middle East.

The work below was painted at Stalag VIII-B, a German prisoner of war camp where Sergeant Arthur Nichol was captured and imprisoned.

Fight by Sergeant Arthur Nichol (1914-1965)
On 30th June. 1943, the 58th/59th Battalion launched an attack on Bobdubi Ridge, New Guinea. The fighting was fierce; the Japanese poured machine-gun fire from fortified and camouflaged positions. The battalion managed to secure a position on the ridge within two days. From there they were able to capture Old Vickers position in 28 July, driving the Japanese from the ridge. The capture of this position was a major action in the Wau-Salamaua campaign.

Taking Old Vickers position, Bobdubi Ridge, 28 July 1945 by Ivor Hele
Hele was an official war artist and his painting shows the Australians struggling up the steep slope to take the Japanese bunkers and trenches. The grey-toned ridge and cloud-covered mountain range in the distance provide a sense of altitude and the inhospitable landscape. Old Vickers was the key to the ridge, and its capture opened the way to Salamaua.

Ballet of Wind and Rain by Colin Colahan
Ballet of Wind and Rain was painted in Holland late in the war (February 1945) when Colahan travelled into recently-liberated regions of war-torn Europe. In this painting the artist has captured a group of four airmen, moving across an airfield, during a fleeting moment. Colahan's biographer, Garry Kinnane, wrote, 'the feeling of space and the elements - the wind, rain and light playing on the bodies of the airmen, who are positioned like a chorus line - make a lyrical and memorable arabesque out of an otherwise mundane event.'

The unusual title of the work refers both to the choreography of the figures and the theatricality of the composition. The idea that a ballet was created through the colour, movement and atmospheric effects of the scene as it presented itself to the eye, recalled the use of  musical terms such as 'symphony', 'arrangement' and 'harmony' in the titles of a number of paintings by Whistler. Clearly Colahan was more interested in capturing the human drama posed by this wartime subject, than in painting major military events.

Soldier by Russell Drysdale
Albury Station became a notable source of inspiration for Russell Drysdale. As the intersection where the railway lines changed gauge between Victoria and New South Wales, it became an important stopover for Australian servicemen. Troops were often stranded there for hours, and Drysdale observed them huddled in groups, sleeping or chatting to one another. Soldier captures the loneliess and uncertainty of a tired soldier waiting for the train to take him to his next posting.

I am particularly interested in the female official war artists and the subject matter they recorded. They attempted to present Australia at war as a nation including people from different genders and backgrounds, bestowing importance onto otherwise ordinary sitters.

WAAAF Cook (Corporal Joan Whipp) by Nora Heysen
In this portrait of Corporal Joan Beatrice Whipp, the cook from the Women's Auxillary Australian Air Force is preparing bully beef. A comparison between the initial drawing of WAAAF Corporal Whipp and the finished painting shoews how Nora Heysen has exaggerated the cook's powerfully built arms and increased her relative size within the picture to make her a more imposing presence.

Whereas the drawing probably captures what Heysen remembers of her character - 'she was such a jolly person and she got on very well with the men and she was such a good cook' - on the painting she is depicted as serious and even formidable. Heysen had previously ben censured for not making her war art stern enough.

Morning after night shift by Dore Hawthorne
Morning after night shift is one of a series of 40 works by Dore Hawthorne titles 'Factory Folk'. The series depicts life and work at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory where the artists worked from 1942 to 1945 assembling Breen light machine guns. Hawthorne signed each painting in the series with the pseudonym 'Brendorah' - a conflation of her name and the weapon she made in the factory.

A friend of hers, Nancy Hall, wrote, 'Dore felt the ugliness of materialism and pollution as keenly as she felt everything that was fine and beautiful, and much of her painting and writing was a great cry of protest.'
No. 1 projectile shop (Commonwealth Ordnance Factory, Maribyrnong) by Sybil Craig
Sybil Craig's colourful and impressionistic work captures the activity of women operating electric lathes to perform single tasks on 18- or 25- pounder shells before these are passed on to the next operator. To protect them form the machines and the dirt they wore overalls and snoods over their hair.

With the escalation of the war and much of the male workforce away fighting, women replaced men in the factories. As process workers they were trained for specific operations that were often dangerous and onerous. The war affected everyone, and it's good to see this fully represented.

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