Interpreting the war: Australia's Second World War art
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The Australian War Memorial's original purpose was to commemorate the 60,000 Australians who had fought and died overseas during the First World War; however, by the time the building opened on Armistice Day, 1941, the nation was involved in another world war, with official war artists already appointed and, indeed, at work in the Middle East. Both a shrine and a museum, the Memorial aimed to give people a better understanding of war through the display of "relics" such as uniforms or military artefacts, official and private records, photographs, and the commissioned works of art.
The success of the First World War art program, based on the British and Canadian war art schemes, made it an appropriate model for the Second World War scheme. The new program eventually expanded to 35 artists, including for the first time three women. The scheme was originally run by the Department of the Interior, but in 1941 control of the scheme, including the appointment of artists, was transferred to the Memorial.
The key figures in managing and shaping the art scheme were all veterans of the First World War: all had experiences in collecting relics and records and had been closely involved in the Memorial's development. The Memorial's Art Committee had three members: Charles Bean (the Australian official war historian); General Sir Harry Chauvel (the Australian commander in Egypt and Palestine during the First World War); and Louis McCubbin (an artist, who was also director of the Art Gallery of South Australia).
With the assistance of the conservative Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the Art Committee created lists of potential artists. McCubbin had firm views on what was required: younger artists were to be preferred to those who had already been appointed once before, and the art was to express the emotional side of war rather than just be documentary. For his part, Bean supported shorter appointments, to provide opportunity for more artists, and thus a more varied interpretation, across a number of categories: portraits, figures, genre, industry, landscape and marine subjects.
The early appointments tested the program and raised many issues: the relationship with the military, status of artists, working conditions, length of employment, availability of art materials, transport and accommodation, rates of pay, access to the front line, employment of traditional versus contemporary artists, and uncertainty about the results.
The Memorial's art collection has been misinterpreted for decades by some critics who see it as illustrative rather than interpretive. Although illustrations do exist, they are only a small part of a rich and diverse collection. Despite the conservative preference of Lieutenant Colonel John Treloar, the Memorial's second director and the Art Committee for a figurative art that was recognisable rather than obscure, the collection demonstrates a history of the struggles Australian artists faced both with difficult subject matter and the changing modernist aesthetic.
The Second World War collection has arisen from many sources. Apart from the Memorial's officially appointed and administered artists, the Military History Section (MHS) seconded artists already enlisted in the army, navy or air force. Works also came into the Memorial's collection through independent schemes initiated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) War History Section, Royal Australian Navy Historical Records Section, and the Allied Works Council. O ver the years the collection has been augmented by the acquisition of works by non-commissioned artists. Taken together, it offers a diverse interpretation of Australia's involvement in war and its impact on society.