George Lambert, The Charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 1917, oil on canvas. Collection: Australian War Memorial, acquired under the official war art scheme in 1920

Recalling history to duty: 100 years of Australian war art

Ryan Johnston on Australia's official war art scheme.

The centenary of the First World War also marks the centenary of Australia’s official war art scheme, founded in 1917 and managed by the Australian War Memorial. Since the scheme’s inauguration more than seventy artists have been deployed to conflict and peacekeeping zones, making it one of Australia’s most significant art commissioning programs. Yet despite this, the scheme occupies a marginal position within the historiography of Australian art. There are many reasons for this: including, the assumed elevation of historical veracity and realism over aesthetic experiment and avant-garde inclination; political suspicion of a state-endorsed program for the depiction of war; and a belief that embedding artists with the military is both compromising and increasingly anachronistic when the proliferation of digital information means that unmediated and even leaked classified footage of war can now readily be found on mainstream websites.

To be clear, I am not attempting to validate the avant-garde credentials of Australia’s official war art. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a less pressing or interesting art historical concern. Nor is there scope here to attempt to unpick official war art’s complex social and political status, although this is a worthy and long overdue object of enquiry that I will briefly return to in my conclusion. Instead, on the eve of the centenary of this most unusual and persistent of commissioning projects, I will return to its origins to look, first of all, at three artists whose idiosyncratic approach to the genre produced historiographical insight resonant with the contemporary commemorative context. Following this, I will plot a potted history of the scheme, and some of its more salient turns, into the present.

The official war art scheme began unofficially in December 1916 when the Australian illustrator and artist Will Dyson arrived on the Western Front in France. Based in London, where he worked as a cartoonist for the socialist Daily Herald newspaper, Dyson had been among several expatriate artists (including Arthur Streeton) agitating for Australia to initiate an official war art scheme like those introduced by both Canada and Britain earlier that year. Australia’s hesitation to do so, along with the slow, bureaucratic and ultimately negative response to Dyson’s requests, prompted him to bypass official channels by simply volunteering with the Australian Imperial Force and going to the Western Front without pay or support. He arrived just in time to experience one of the most unfathomably violent winters in European history.

The work Dyson produced in response was not traditional war art, which tended either towards the genre of history painting or highly detailed panoramas that depicted battles over time. Instead, Dyson focused on the everyday lives and experiences of Australians on the front, and developed a series of empathic drawings. As Dyson’s initial work began to be disseminated (with the assistance of Charles Bean, Australia’s war correspondent and later founder of the Australian War Memorial), its significance was quickly appreciated and in May 1917 he was appointed Australia’s first official war artist. Thus, despite its name, the official war art scheme was born not of officialdom, but of the wilful circumvention of officialdom by an artist.

Dyson’s most significant work on the First World War was completed only after his commission and the First World War itself had concluded. On 13 May 1919, he published a cartoon in response to the Treaty of Versailles in which he predicted the negotiated terms would lead to another world war. While his guess that it would begin in 1940 was one year off the mark, his insight nonetheless pre-empted the economist John Maynard Keynes’ far better known public assertion of the same by almost six months.[1]

Will Dyson cartoon Peace and Future
Will Dyson, Peace and Future Cannon Fodder, originally published in the British Daily Herald, 13 May 1919

Exactly one year after Dyson was appointed, Arthur Streeton became an official war artist, having recently declined an offer from the Canadian government which had adopted an unusually internationalist approach to its commissioning program. Streeton spent approximately four months on the Western Front, mostly at the Somme, where he completed studies and sketches for a large body of paintings to be completed in London. One of the most significant of these, Amiens – The Key of the West (1918), depicts this crucial administrative centre and its Gothic cathedral in the far distance. As in much of Streeton’s war work, the fighting is here kept largely to the periphery of the composition, as if to suggest that the extremity of the violence could never be entirely contained or conveyed within the perspectival logic of the painting itself.

This work is also notable for depicting the landscape as far more densely foliated than it was at the time of Streeton’s visit, a conceit that allowed him to combine French with Australian flora (what appear to be Australian blackwoods are clearly visible throughout). The other striking aspect of this painting is the view. Whereas war painting more commonly provided a view to the front or of the battle itself (i.e. the soldiers’ point of view), this particular scene is a view back from German lines to the allied stronghold. While it is often remarked how Streeton used shadows to symbolise the German advance, what is important here is that the viewer has been located within these shadows that extend out into the painting from the foreground. Painted during the bloody climax of the war in France, Streeton’s hybridised transnational landscape, which cannot convey the violence that is its ostensible subject, is nonetheless viewed standing shoulder to shoulder with the enemy. As such, it is a surprisingly cosmopolitan gesture.

Arthur Streeton, Amiens, the Key of the West
Amiens, The Key of the West, 1918, oil on canvas. Collection: Australian War Memorial, purchased 1936

The third artist worth mentioning in this context is George Lambert who, due in part to his willingness to attend to historical detail, received the highest profile commissions of the First World War. Lambert’s large-scale works, like ANZAC, The Landing 1915 (1920–22) were often fairly traditional history paintings, depicting major events with a combination of mythic emotion, epic scale and historical accuracy. Yet the dozens of small oil studies he completed while in Palestine and the Sinai suggest a more fragmented approach to his self-proclaimed role as 'artist historian’. Always small, often unfinished, quiet and largely devoid of fighting, they are in many ways antithetical to his major commissioned works. Yet one possible trajectory between these two aspects of his war art emerges in the 1920 painting The Charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 1917.

Following his commission to depict the famous Australian Light Horse victory, a turning point in the Palestine campaign, Lambert researched this major work meticulously: he collected first-hand accounts of the battle, re-rode its course, and explored the extant trenches. Yet despite this empirical approach, the painting itself is a compositional oddity in which spatial and psychological relationships remain consistent only within small sections. To the left a group of Turkish soldiers sit casually, seemingly oblivious to the fighting at close quarters, while to the right a horse rears from immediately behind a group of Australian and Turkish troops, but without eliciting a response. In the centre of the composition an Australian soldier with awkward un-foreshortened hands (conspicuous given Lambert’s experience as a portraitist) lurches unconvincingly at nothing in particular with a bayonet. It is as if all of these various groups occupy alien but nonetheless transparent dimensions. The Battle of Beersheba is not a single coherent image; instead, presented as multiple compositions, it presents a fractured spatial and psychological environment. It is a series of small works that don’t quite add up to a history painting; a series of inter-related events that even Lambert, the consummate artist historian, couldn’t reconcile into anything so coherent as a singular perspective.

Following the First World War, the Australian War Memorial’s art commissioning program was dominated by the construction of the now famously elaborate diorama cycle. But the official war art scheme resumed during the Second World War in significantly expanded form. In retrospect, it is perhaps just as notable for those who did not receive commissions as for those who did; with Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker just two of the most conspicuous to be passed over. Those selected ranged from well-known conservative artists like William Dargie, through to then virtually unknown artists who were already enlisted in the military. Among the latter was Allan Moore, whose images of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp are among the most significant to emerge from that conflict by any artist. It was also during the Second World War that women were first admitted to the scheme, with Stella Bowen, Nora Heysen and Sybil Craig receiving commissions.[2]

The scheme was again re-activated, albeit at greatly reduced capacity, during the Korean War, when Frank Norton and Ivor Hele were deployed, with Hele becoming the only artist to receive commissions to two different conflicts. But it was in Vietnam that the scheme faltered outright. Unlike previous or subsequent wars, any official artist deployed to Vietnam was required to undertake full jungle warfare training, and fight if and as required. This shifting of the war artists’ role from observer to active participant, requiring lengthy periods of training, and experiencing the deep unpopularity of the war more broadly, all combined to stymie the scheme. Of the two artists eventually deployed in this conflict, Bruce Fletcher produced a series of atmospheric if conventional scenes of jungle combat, while the artistic output of Ken McFadyen, who was accidentally shot in the leg shortly after arrival, was largely limited to interior views of the hospital in which he recovered.

The official war art scheme remained dormant throughout the First Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, for reasons that remain to be fully understood. The scheme was revised and expanded in 1999 by the AWM’s then Head of Art, Lola Wilkins, and Director, Major General Stephen Gower. Their changes were significant. The scope of the scheme was broadened to include a range of military operations, not just wars, while the artists were given considerably greater freedom than before. First and Second World War commissions had frequently stipulated subject matter and insisted on various degrees of historical and factual fidelity, even if the artists often didn’t obediently follow directions. Under the contemporary scheme, the remit became an echo of the mission of the Australian War Memorial itself, with the succinct brief requiring each artist to record and interpret Australian military experience and activity. How they did so was left to their discretion.

At first, the new scheme focused on peacekeeping activities, with both Rick Amor and Wendy Sharpe deployed to East Timor in 1999, Sharpe becoming just the fourth female war artist. In February 2002 Peter Churcher was appointed official artist to the so-called “war against terrorism”, an appointment notable for both its remarkable speed (just months after allied troops entered Afghanistan) and nomenclature. Twelve months later, Lewis Miller was also deployed to the Persian Gulf.

If these initial appointments suggested a renewed interest in the documentary potential of war art, this shifted with the appointment of well-known artists and influential art historians Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007. Brown and Green’s response to the commission was a series of quiet and oddly still, realist paintings and photographs of war’s infrastructure: vast bases, military technology, armoured vehicles and night patrols. It was, as the artists noted at the time, “a portrait of force, of the hard edge of globalisation”.[3]

Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, American HQ
Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, American HQ (Presidential Palace), Camp Victory, Baghdad, 2007, oil on linen. Collection: Australian War Memorial, acquired under the official war art scheme in 2008

While the realism of these works may initially appear consistent with the documentary qualities of previous commissions, this is something of a red herring. As Amelia Douglas has subtly and brilliantly argued, the serial nature of their format and display combines with the still, non-narrative and vignette-like compositions to arrest and fracture contemporary history as it unfolds, revealing “the profound resonance between war, entropy and history”.[4] The second point of departure in these works is the self-conscious filtering of their images through art historical tropes: market scenes echo the Orientalist painting of Jean-Léon Gérôme, images of sand-covered shipping containers evoke Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woolshed (1970), and a view of Saddam Hussein’s former palace converted into the American military headquarters in Baghdad appears only darkly, as if through a Claude glass. Rather than aestheticise conflict, this insistent, almost pathological shape-shifting through the history of representation immobilises any pretence to an art of witnessing, just as it obliquely entrenches their subject matter in multiple, complex histories.[5]

Brown and Green’s appointment also marked two further new tendencies within the revived scheme. The first was a shift to the consistent engagement of artists with a high profile in the contemporary Australian art world. The second was a shift to a more curatorial model for the scheme, in which a relatively wider diversity of practices and media were consciously sought. Jon Cattapan was thus sent to East Timor the following year, while eX de Medici visited the Solomon Islands in 2009. Shaun Gladwell was deployed to Afghanistan just months after representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in 2009, while Ben Quilty became the last artist to visit Afghanistan in 2011. Most recently, Tony Albert was the first Indigenous Australian artist to be officially commissioned, and was deployed to the North West Mobile Force in 2012 where he observed the unit’s unique training program combining traditional military skills with Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices.

Each of these commissions focused on quite different aspects of the operations in question via a range of aesthetic strategies. Cattapan produced a series of painted scenes, extrapolated from digital photographs, almost totally obscured by data layers and the green light of night vision goggles. eX de Medici, on the other hand, painted elaborate, deceptively decorative watercolours and drawings that sought to locate the regional assistance mission she observed within the complex colonial legacies to which it responded. In the dual-channel digital film POV mirror sequence (Tarin Kowt) (2009–10), Gladwell portrayed the digital mediation of contemporary warfare as a representational mise en abyme, while Quilty’s large, expressionist and near abstract portraits exploring the psychological impact of war harked back to the scheme’s origins with Will Dyson. Albert, on the other hand, produced (among other work) a series of small and delicate watercolour silhouettes of the young Indigenous recruits he met, their names writ large beneath their image to simultaneously register and correct the absence of Indigenous Australians from Australian military history.

Jon Cattapan, Night Patrols (Around Maliana)
Jon Cattapan, Night Patrols (Around Maliana), 2009, oil on Belgian linen. Collection: Australian War Memorial, acquired under the official war art scheme in 2009

Writing in the context of the centenary of the First World War, at one of those national moments when history is recalled to duty and reshaped as public memory by a variety of actors with a variety of purposes, it strikes me that one of the unique values of the official war art scheme is its status as an archive of contemporary, creative historiography over time. Of course, how the production of these histories may or may not have been mediated by the institutional frameworks from which they emerged is a key question to address, as it is of any artwork analysed historically. But it is precisely this close attention to the institutional framework and details of the official war art scheme that is notably absent in most previous accounts of it.[6] Any attempt to properly historicise a scheme of this nature must involve close attention to things like contractual details, institutional aims and processes, the personnel involved, artists’ own accounts, and the reception of the work both by the commissioning body and its stakeholders (including the Australian public). Approached in this way, the war art archive can provide unique insight into the relationship between historical events, their subsequent historicisation and the conditions under which they later emerge, often contentiously, as public memory.

Ex de Medici, Vilu Mlitary Museum
Ex de Medici, Vilu Military Museum, watercolour on paper. Collection: Australian War Memorial, acquired under the official war art scheme in 2010


  1. ^ Maynard Keynes' argument was famously presented in his 1919 book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written following his attendance at the Paris Peace Conference as a delegate of the British Treasury.
  2. ^ For a more detailed account of official (and non-official) Australian art of the Second World War than is possible here see: Warwick Heywood, Reality in Flames: Modern Australian Art and the Second World War, Australian War Memorial/New South Books, Canberra, 2013.
  3. ^ See the artists statement by Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, published to coincide with the AWM travelling exhibition of their work: https: 
  4. ^ Amelia Douglas, ‘The Viewfinder and the View’, Broadsheet, 38:3, 2009. 
  5. ^ Brown and Green’s interest in the representation of conflict and its aftermath initiated by this commission has been extensively pursued in subsequent work, particularly in their collaboration with another former war artist, Jon Cattapan. On this see: Lyndell Brown/Charles Green and Jon Cattapan, Framing Conflict: Contemporary Art and Aftermath, Melbourne: Macmillan, 2014.
  6. ^ See, for example, the critical absence of such attention to detail in Fayen d’Evie’s trenchant and speculative account of the official war art scheme: ‘Let's All Go to Iraq’, un Magazine, vol. 2, no. 1, 2008. Despite this absence, d’Evie does raise important questions in regards which and whose experiences of war are historically privileged.

Ryan Johnston is Head of Art at the Australian War Memorial.