Australian War Memorial: Reality in Flames

Australian War Memorial

Reality in Flames: Modern Australian Art & the Second World War

Opened on 3 July 2015, this is ‘the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to exploring how Australian modernist artists responded creatively to the Second World War’. Modern Australian artists, including official war artists, interpreted ‘the experience of combat, the powerfully destructive machinery of war, and the vast social upheaval produced by global conflict’.

There are 90 works in the exhibition, including works by Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Joy Hester, Nora Heysen, Frank Hinder, Roger Kemp, Sidney Nolan, Eric Thake, Albert Tucker, and Danila Vassilieff. The exhibition is accompanied by an education kit for schools. The exhibition has previously toured outside Canberra.

To judge by the education kit alone, the paintings in the exhibition cover a wide range of subject matter, from Dore Hawthorne’s ‘Gauges and components’ (machine parts) to Alan Moore’s ‘SS guards burying dead, Belsen’ and from Donald Friend’s ‘War memorial in a country town’ to Grace Taylor’s ‘Land army girls on cotton’. While there are some depictions of combat (Frank Hinder’s ‘Bomber crash’ and Murray Griffin’s ‘HMAS Perth fights to the last’ the exhibition seems mercifully free of grandiose, panoramic canvasses like George Lambert’s depictions of the Landing and the charge at The Nek that appear in the World War I galleries at the Memorial.

Sasha Griffin reviewed the exhibition for Fairfax and noted that

the conservative realists outnumber the avant-garde modernists [in the works chosen]. There is not a single Arthur Boyd painting in the show or one by John Perceval, and only solitary examples by Sidney Nolan and Danila Vassilieff, but a plethora of works by conservative official war artists.

Grishin commends, nevertheless, the Memorial’s recent efforts to purchase modern art.

As there was in the art world at the time, there is, in this exhibition, a tension between those who glorified war, sacrifice and patriotism and those who adopted a broader humanist perspective and who saw in war a senseless carnage and a global catastrophe.

This is a refreshing exhibition in that it resists the trends of nationalist militarism and xenophobic racial vilification, that sadly once again are rearing their ugly heads and are encouraged by some Australian politicians and fringe groups in Australian society. In this exhibition the artists bear witness to the tragedy of war and in a variety of different and personal ways convey this in their art.

Earlier reviews appeared in Crikey, The Australian and VisualArtsHub. A fuller Honest History review is here.

20 July 2015 and updated

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