Death's Artefact... Recent Art and War

“I have seen visible, Death’s artefact

Like a soldier’s ribbon on the tunic tacked”

Dannie Abse[1]

Although one would expect the field of war art to be generously littered with dead bodies, this is not the case. Instead, death has been represented circumspectly, through the rituals surrounding it or through metaphor.[2]

Despite the carnage on the battlefields of the First World War, the Australian official war artists at the front rarely represented Australian casualties. This is in marked contrast to the works of European artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix.[3] Instead, Australian artists alluded to death by using metaphors, such as the devastated landscape, to signify the violated human body.[4] The few works of art that do present dead bodies are almost exclusively post-war creations. They include large-scale commemorative paintings which continue the nineteenth century academic genre of battle paintings and the Australian Memorial’s dioramas produced to provide a three-dimensional version of the large paintings.

One of the most significant paintings about death in the First World War, Will Longstaff’s Menin Gate at midnight (1927) depicts the ghosts of the fallen soldiers rising from their graves and marching before the Menin Gate Memorial. Longstaff, profoundly affected by Spiritualist philosophy, reputedly saw this vision while attending the dedication of the Memorial, and later painted the work in one session, while still under psychic influence.[5] Not surprisingly, this comforting image of existence after death achieved iconic status with the many Australians who had lost family and friends in the war.

Again, during the Second World War, official war artists at the front very rarely depicted the bodies of Australian soldiers killed in action. In fact, there seems to have been a positive aversion to this subject matter for which there is no evidence of official censorship. This lack of images of individual dead soldiers suggests a self-censure by the artists, sensitive to the feelings of relatives and friends of the deceased. The almost total absence of the representation of anonymous Australian battlefield casualties points to the unacceptability of such imagery to wartime civilian audiences. As during the First World War, artists employed metaphors to represent dead bodies. In this war one of the most predominant is that of a wrecked machine, often a downed aeroplane lying corpse-like on the ground.

When the official war artists did deal directly with the deaths of Australians it was invariably by depicting the rituals of death, those symbolic acts through which death is transformed. Alan Moore’s RAAF padre at the grave of a fighter pilot, Italy (1944) shows a kneeling cleric praying at a grave marked with a cross. The Christian elements transform this death into sacrifice, and this death is given meaning as the ultimate expression of love for one’s country and dedication to the values it espouses. Although a simple grave, this is clearly a hero’s funeral.

In contrast Ivor Hele’s Battlefield burial of three NCO’s (1944), is shocking in the casual manner in which burial is to take place. The bodies of the three non-commissioned officers lie dumped unceremoniously on the muddy ground. There is no officiating priest, or crosses or headstones to mark the combined graves. Several soldiers waiting for the burial have not even put down their weapons; this burial will take only a few moments and then they will be on their way again. This apparent indifference of the burial party lies in the fact that they confront the killing of comrades and enemy alike on a daily basis. Importantly however, despite the disturbing detachment and lack of sentiment, the ritual of burial is still taking place.

The reluctance to depict battlefield casualties did not extend to the enemy. In the work of the official war artists there are numerous graphic depictions of dead Japanese. Many of these paintings and drawings show bloated and rotting corpses, and in these the full horror of war is presented without the desire to valorise, or transform death.

Unlike the art of earlier conflicts which deals essentially with death in terms of sacrifice, contemporary art that deals with death in war raises political and moral questions about warfare.

Dennis Trew’s Names from the Book of the Dead (1992) is a complex work that explores the relationship between the living and the dead. Its genesis is the artist’s experience as a young enlisted sailor aboard the troopship HMAS Hobart during the Vietnam war. It comprises 104 separate laser-scanned photocopies taken from The Australian’s 1987 special feature 500: The Australians who died in Vietnam’. These images of the dead are placed on either side of a larger image of the artist holding his service number. Across this central image is written “Like Charon, I was a ferryman, rowing them across their River Styx to the land of the dead, Vietnam 1968-1970”. The 104 individuals are each represented by an identity photograph accompanied by a short biographical outline which includes the circumstances of their death. Although death is indiscriminate, the artist re-affirms individuality beyond death, and beyond the anonymous historical facts listing the ‘casualties of war’. This work deliberately belongs to the canon of funerary art and its title is a clear reference to the elaborate cult of the dead of ancient Egypt.

By Trew’s inclusion of his own image the work is also about his relationship with the dead as well as referring to his experiences as a survivor of the Vietnam war. In a published statement accompanying the work the artist quotes the last words of the central character of Phillip K Dick’s science fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: “These eyes have seen things you can never know…”[6] Trew is clearly drawing a parallel between the misunderstood, feared android soldier who attempts to integrate himself into human society, and the experiences of the Vietnam veterans in adjusting and being accepted back into our society.

In contrast, Ray Beattie’s Image for a Dead Man (1980) signifies death through absence. It is a photo-realist still life, in which all the carefully selected and arranged elements of the composition are the tangible traces of someone who is no longer there. The uniform jacket hung across the back of the chair still holds the shape of the wearer. The electrical cord behind the chair and the empty telephone socket, recurring motifs in Beattie’s art about the Vietnam war, symbolise that the person is forever out of reach. The expanse of the cold white wall behind the chair signifies the nothingness that is death. The work communicates an overwhelming sense of grief and loss, the simple poignancy of absence that is an inevitable product of war.

Although no Australian artists observed the Gulf War first hand, many artists made works in response to the conflict. Doug Sheerer’s Game - Play - January 17 - 2:44 am - 1991 (1991) is a critique of the use (or abuse) of the military technology used in this war, and its capacity for death and destruction with such apparent ease. The work consists of seven boxed collage images, taken from an F 19 Stealth Fighter flight simulator sold as a computer game for personal use. These images have been superimposed over digitally reprocessed photographs taken in the Uffizi in Florence and of the floor tiles of St Marks Cathedral in Venice. Sheerer has written that the work was conceived after hearing George Bush talk about bombing Baghdad around the clock seven days a week. “It was a  ‘Cinerama’ type war fought by technicians and tacticians from behind a computer screen.”[7] However the Gulf War did not take place on computer, and at stake were real lives, homes and historical and religious monuments. The increasing disconnectedness between the modern methods of weapons delivery and the horrific end result is a disturbing situation. Modern military technology is taking the ‘personal touch’ out of warfare, essentially concealing the unpalatable reality that its most important outcome still remains the death of others.

Unlike Sheerer’s work about the means of destruction, Kevin Connor’s works are directly about the effects of the war on the Iraqi people. Connor travelled to Iraq, several months after the end of the Gulf War, where he made drawings and notes in sketchbooks that became the basis for numerous drawings and paintings on his return to Australia.[8] His works make the death caused by the war visible and real to us, eliminating the sense of detachment and unreality engendered by experiencing the war through the medium of television. Although Connor did not see bodies he felt the presence of the dead to be pervasive. In A man whose family died when his house was bombed in a Basrah suburb (1991) Connor shows us a portrait of a man set against the remains of his house. We are brought into direct contact with the man’s personal tragedy and the cost of the war in lives and suffering is made apparent. In the southern cities of Najaf and Karbala, Connor sensed the killings that had occurred there as a result of the civil war. A drawing from this series is inscribed Karbala had the stench of awful happenings and Connor drew blackened and mutilated bodies being removed in works such as A wagonload of dismembered ghosts, Najaf (1991). These spectral bodies dominate Connor’s Sulman Prize-winning painting Najaf (Iraq), June 1991 (1991) and are set against a background of the physical destruction of the city. Unlike Longstaff’s Menin Gate at Midnight, where the ghostly presence of the dead reassured a generation of grieving Australians, Connor’s ghosts remain to haunt those responsible for the bloodshed and those survivors who must face the aftermath and consequences of the war.

Equation 2, 1991 by Roslyn Evans is a screenprint that tries to make sense of the supposed logic espoused by the military of a world whose civilian economies are inextricably meshed with the markets for weapons of mass destruction and in which the purpose for “the waging of war is ultimately to maintain the peace.”[9] In a series of equations made up of images of weapons, a dead body and mathematical symbols, the artist presents what seems on the surface to be logical, sequential reasoning. On closer inspection we find no sense in the equations at all.

Crated during the Gulf War Equation 2 demonstrates the absurdity behind much militaristic thinking. It also exposes what the artist believes to be the fundamental reasons for the waging of the Gulf War. One of these is money, in particular in relation to the price of oil and petroleum in the USA and to the potential revenue to be generated from post-war markets for ‘combat proven’ armaments. Another is the implication that the deaths of the enemy and one’s own troops is a small price to pay for economic and political dominance.

Roslyn Evans’s six part work All the fine young men (1992) is presented as an exploration of the impact of war on the artist’s family from a female perspective as daughter, wife and mother. Death, due to war and its ramifications for family members, is a pervading feature of the work.

The first box in All the fine young men contains the etched statement “If it had not been for the Second World War I might not have been born.” Later in the piece we learn that Evans’s mother’s first husband had died on the Sandakan to Ranau death march. Evans’s father was her mother’s second husband. A wartime death is responsible for the artist’s own existence. Immediately there is an inseparable interconnection between the death and life of individuals.

This interweaving continues throughout the remainder of the work. The killing of an enemy soldier during the Second World War by the artist’s father-in-law is mentioned. However he avoids publicly confronting the issue of death with the almost dismissive statement that he “didn’t think much of the war” etched into the glass front of one box.

The potential for a war death to again affect the artist’s family is raised with the conscription ballots held during the Vietnam War, for Evans implies the consequences for her sons if he had been drafted and killed; they would be in the same position as Evans if her mother’s first husband had not died.

The fate of those sons is examined in the final part of the work. With an escalation of the war against Iraq there is the potential for them to be called up to fight overseas, with the chance of their deaths and extinction of the artist’s branch of the family.

All the fine young men poses many questions about the consequences of the deaths that occur as a result of war. It establishes a theory about the repetition of history, of act and effect, in war and death. Although a work with political meaning the exploration is expressed in personal emotional terms from a biological viewpoint.

The contemporary role of works of art that deal with war deaths has become an intensely personal one for the artist; they have become a means of expressing and exploring individual and gender-related responses to political, social and emotional issues. They all imply a universal human concern over waging of war today. By interpreting and examining the meaning for the artist these works go beyond a mere factual statistical presentation of wartime death and beyond modifying it to make it more palatable. They are the products of the multiplicity of personal realities of war.


  1. ^ “I have seen visible, Death’s artefactLike a soldier’s ribbon on the tunic tacked” Dannie Abse ‘A small desperation’ Pathology of colours 1968.
  2. ^ All of the works discussed in this article are in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
  3. ^ Anne Gray ‘Four printmakers at war; Dix, Nash, Dyson, Laboureur’ Art and Australia Vol 28 no 4 Winter 1991, p 483.
  4. ^ Leigh Astbury ‘Death and eroticism in the Anzac legend’ Art and Australia vol 30 no 1 Spring 1992, p68.
  5. ^ Anne Gray ‘Will Longstaff’s Menin Gate at midnight’ Jounal of the Australian War Memorial no 12 April 1988, p 47.
  6. ^ Dennis Trew, artist’s statement in catalogue for  War and memory Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 1992.
  7. ^ Doug Sheerer, letter to the Australian War Memorial, 23 January 1992.
  8. ^ Anne Gray ‘Gulf War art’ Art and Australia Vol 31 no 2 Summer 1993, pp 208-215.
  9. ^ Roslyn Evens, artist’s statement in catalogue for Matters, an exhibition by Canberra School of Art printmaking graduates, Melville Hall, Australian National University, 1991.