Anzac Evolution

April 25, 2015
Image courtesy James Compton
Image courtesy James Compton

Looking at Australia in the years before and after the First World War, one feels like asking: “What went wrong?” There was so much happening in those early years of nationhood, so many glorious ideals forged in the war itself, that the post-war years can only be seen as a lost opportunity.

Constitutional historian, Helen Irving, tells us that in the years immediately preceding the war, Australians “had an international reputation as political innovators and experimenters.” These innovations included suffrage for women and the right to stand for parliament, payment of MPs, proportional representation and preferential voting. By the 1920s these radical ideas would seem to belong to another planet, as the political landscape grew stale and conservative, and the country slumped into the Great Depression.

Historian and photographer, John Williams, has fleshed out this picture, showing the change that came over Australian newspapers after the war. In the Edwardian years the Sydney Morning Herald might run a long, erudite essay discussing the latest artistic trends such as Futurism. In the post-war world Australians seemed to have lost their interest in cultural matters. The crucible of war had transmuted us into a race of warriors and sportsmen.

One telling statistic is that between 1926 and 1945, of 109 graduates from the National Art School in Sydney, only five were men. Australian culture had taken an aggressively masculine turn and art was seen as an unworthy – possibly effeminate – occupation. While disaffected ex-soldiers joined right-wing groups that fought with left-wing Unionists, and Don Bradman performed his miraculous feats with a cricket bat, the visual arts were left in the hands of an aging group of patricians. These guardians of public taste were tireless in their efforts to keep the “disease” of Modernism from our shores, while celebrating the ideological purity of gum tree painting.

Although there were excellent gum tree painters such as Hans Heysen, the field was overrun with mediocrity and propped up by nepotism. Even a respected landscapist such as Sir Arthur Streeton was a shadow of his youthful self, despite the fact that he still towered over the competition.

It is now widely acknowledged that the most innovative work being made at this time was by women artists, who were dismissed as hobbyists by the guardians of public taste. Modernism was tolerated as home decoration, but allowed no traction in the guise of fine art.

It took another war and another generation to shake us out of this self-imposed cultural torpor. By 1959 critic Bernard Smith launched his short-lived Antipodeans movement in defence of “the image” against the inroads made by abstractionists. In art historical terms the most significant aspect of this brief moment was that it saw modernists of figurative and abstract persuasions battling for supremacy in the Australian art world. In the prosperous fifties the gum tree painters had been quietly superceded.

The 1960s would usher in a cultural free-for-all, with the Vietnam War acting as a stimulus for protest movements and artistic revolutions. The widespread rejection of Australian involvement in ‘America’s war’ saw Anzac Day come under suspicion as a celebration of militarism. Alan Seymour’s play, The One Day of the Year (1958) echoed the sentiments of a younger generation who had become accustomed to seeing old soldiers spending the day gambling, and drinking themselves into a stupor. Anzac Day was viewed as a relic of another age: a glorification of violence, masculinity and the worst versions of mateship.

In The One Day of the Year, the WW2 veteran, Alf Cook gives a simple defence of the traditional Anzac celebrations: “I’m a bloody Australian, mate, and it’s because I’m a bloody Australian that I’m gettin’ on the grog.”

It was often said that so long as those soldiers who had fought at Gallipoli survived we would never forget the Anzacs and their sacrifice. This has proven to be almost completely contrary to the truth. As the last of the Gallipoli veterans have grown old and died, Australians have begun to treat Anzac Day with a respect it never enjoyed in the 1960s. The desperate bacchanals have disappeared along with the former combatants. Many old-fashioned ideas and prejudices have been laid to rest along with the idea of an Australian “race”. Although the rhetoric of race had been dealt a fatal blow by the evils of the Nazis, it persisted for many years after the war. Perhaps it requires a fully multi-cultural society before it makes no sense to describe a nation in racial terms.

A new, ethnically diverse Australia has embraced the Anzacs with a solemnity that had almost disappeared during the worst of the binge years. Perhaps we are finally able to view Gallipoli as a tragedy rather than a rite of passage. Whatever the views of those who gave their lives, and those who rhapsodised about their deeds, the Anzac landing was a terrible throwback to the imperial attitudes of the 19th century, when generals were happy to sacrifice thousands of soldiers to advance a strategy.

The challenge today is to view the Anzacs without jingoism or sentimentality, or perhaps the idealism of figures such as C.E.W. Bean, who saw the Australian infantryman as the harbinger of a new society. Peter Weir struck that new note in his film, Gallipoli (1981), which portrayed the campaign as a tragedy. The young protagonists in the film are not shown bayoneting Turks, they are innocents caught up in a senseless conflict.

With time, the old soldiers who had been so belligerent in defense of their ‘one day of the year’ had grown frail. By the 1990s the strict protocols that kept women, children and non-combatants away from the commemoration ceremonies had been relaxed. One assumes this was partly in recognition that there would be nobody to carry on the traditions when the veterans were gone. The effect has been dramatic, both in terms of attendances at the Dawn ceremonies, and in the way that young people have embraced Anzac Day as an opportunity to remember the dead and to celebrate peace.

This is the spirit in which artists today feel compelled to approach the Anzac tradition – not inspired by those “Thrilling Deeds of Heroism” championed by the British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, in his famous report of the Anzac landing on 25 April. Such a headline would be greeted with outrage today, but in 1915 it was a source of national pride.

Historian, Ken Inglis, quotes a retuned solders’ journal that claimed the Anzacs’ heroism had erased “a larrikin sense of inferiority, on whose inspiration the broad arrow blot of England’s savage convict system was a worrying obsession. Only a deal of good blood could erase this ancient stain; the pure blood of a free manhood.”

It seems astonishing that ideas about ‘the convict stain’ could still be invoked in 1915, but this passage shows the differences in the way Australians thought and felt a hundred years ago. One can also see the influence of religion in the way martyrdom is viewed as a heroic ideal, if not a necessity. There’s an uncomfortable echo of the way extremist groups today hail the ‘martyrdom’ of suicide bombers.

For the artists who travelled to Gallipoli in 2013 and 2014, the Anzac tradition presented a unique challenge. They were moved by the heroism of the soldiers, but belong to an era that has an ingrained horror of war. In Gallipoli the group was confronted with a dilemma that has plagued Australian artists since colonial times, namely how to capture a sense of the tragic. This problem finds its most remarkable demonstration in Streeton’s Fire’s On (c.1891), which shows a dead man being carried from a tunnel after an accident. Most viewers never see the corpse, only the glare of sunlight reflected on pale rocks, and the blue sky of a summer’s day.

Streeton would have probably approached Gallipoli in the same manner. It was also a temptation for contemporary landscapists such as Elisabeth Cummings who says she felt a sense of “loss and sorrow’, but tried to remain faithful to her observations of the landscape.

Luke Sciberras, who claims Cummings as an influence and a mentor, allowed his imagination to roam more freely, in a series of landscapes with a dynamic, almost explosive appearance. It was as if Sciberras was channeling the tension that must have permeated these hills and gullies when death lurked on all sides. Yet his works on paper were among the brightest pictures produced on the trip. He seemed to be looking at a different landscape to Steve Lopes, Euan Macleod, Idris Murphy, Michael Nock and Jonathan Throsby, whose works were pitched at a much lower key. Amanda Penrose Hart was an exception, painting several pictures with big, bright abstract skies reminiscent of the late works of J.M.W. Turner.

Luke Sciberras, 'Along the Gallipoli Peninsula', 2014, oil on board, 60 x 84cm

Luke Sciberras, ‘Along the Gallipoli Peninsula’, 2014, oil on board, 60 x 84cm

As with most artist excursions, the work ethic was fearsome. Michael Nock, who still sees himself as an amateur among professionals, was determined to keep up, and produced a series of landscapes that won him the respect of his painting companions. Steve Lopes, who also feels he has a lot to learn from figure such as Macleod and Murphy, was tremendously solid. When he wasn’t painting small, naturalistic landscapes he was filling sketchbooks with detailed drawings, including portraits, genre and figure studies.

Jonathan Throsby’s works are probably the most turbulent and expressive of the group. One feels there is a lot going on beneath the surface, as the artist grapples with his experience of a landscape that had a direct historical connection to his family. The landscape seems to be interacting with the artist as he tries to make it his own.

There was also a transformation for Deidre Bean, (no relation to C.E.W. Bean) who found she was no longer satisfied with painstaking botanical studies. The tiny plants gave way to insects, and then bullets. Her major project of painting two rifles was an ambitious exercise for an artist who normally works with the precision of a miniaturist. If we can appreciate the realism of artists such as Michael Zavros and eX De Medici, there is no reason to keep seeing Bean as purely a botanical artist. The trip to Gallipoli may have opened up new horizons.

Deirdre Bean, Rosemary and Bullet, 2014, watercolour and graphite on 300gsm paper, 29 x 32cm

Deirdre Bean, Rosemary and Bullet, 2014, watercolour and graphite on 300gsm paper, 29 x 32cm

The surprise was Guy Maestri, who was probably the least productive artist on the trip. Although he has painted many plein air pictures in Australia, Maestri was unhappy with his materials, and perhaps a little intimidated by the portentous historical significance of the peninsula. It was only upon returning to Australia that he found a way of making sense of the experience, in the still life format.

There are few precedents for today’s artists to explore, because with the exception of George Lambert and to a much lesser extent, Ellis Silas, very little memorable art came out of the Gallipoli campaign. Most of the travellers had formed preconceptions of the battlefields from reading histories and memoirs. The power of words acts on every individual imagination in a different way, but even the briefest study of Gallipoli produces a powerful sense of the misery that both sides endured. In recent years the patriotic spirit of C.E.W. Bean’s writings has given way to accounts and investigations that emphasise the futility of the conflict, and the appalling conditions under which it was conducted.

The most brutally factual account is probably The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War (1974) by Bill Gammage, a historian who followed in Bean’s footsteps by recording the memoirs of ordinary soldiers rather than the deeds of their commanders. It was also an approach followed pictorially by Lambert, who had no compunction about showing men fighting a losing battle on a field littered with the dead and the wounded.

Much of the rhetoric that surrounded the Anzacs in the media reports of the time was so gung-ho, the casual reader could be forgiven for imagining Gallipoli the scene of an historic victory. Back home, every development was greeted with acclaim, even the eventual withdrawal. Today we need to look at the Anzac legend with the same forensic lens that has been turned on Vietnam. But as the artists who visited the site discovered, it is almost impossible to look at this story dispassionately.

The belief that an Australian nation was “born” 14 some years after Federation is one of the hardiest aspects of the Anzac myth. It seems to diminish the importance of Federation, and the strenuous efforts of those politicians and activists who worked to make it a reality. The peaceful unification of five colonies is not a ‘thrilling’ story when set alongside the landing at Anzac Cove. It smacks too much of bureaucracy rather than deeds of heroism and bloodshed. The important point is that the political and cultural openness that flourished in the years following Federation was dissipated in the aftermath of the war.

The Anzacs may have been heroes and martyrs, but the transformation of a failed campaign into a source of booming national pride set the scene for a closing down of Australian culture.

It is a truism that every nation or group considers itself exceptional in some way, but a mark of cultural immaturity to feel one has to keep asserting this distinction. There were obvious reasons why the Australians of 1915 felt the need to proclaim their membership of the great world. Today it is a sign of lingering provincialism and insecurity.

Peter Coleman once wrote that however it may be interpreted, Anzac Day seemed destined to continue as a folk festival, and this has been proven correct. The negative aspect is the tendency to treat the day as an excuse for a party, with the annual Australian pilgrimage to Anzac Cove resembling the tourist trek to the Oktoberfest in Munich. There has been justified anger over the careless attitudes of some visitors, and the crassness of the celebrations.

Back home, the strident anti-Anzac protests by opponents of the Vietnam War, and then by militant feminist groups, have given way to a more respectful attitude. We accept that one can remember and honour the fallen without glorifying war or reinforcing the crudest masculine stereotypes. For many people, including those who have come to live in Australia to escape the ravages of conflict and persecution, Anzac Day serves as a perpetual reminder of the barbarity of war.

This coincides with the evolution of Australia’s military commitment as international peace-keepers. The diggers of today are training Iraqi forces to defend their own country, and helping with the reconstruction of war-torn communities. The Australian War Memorial has revived the process of selecting artists to accompany our forces abroad, generating a wide variety of responses that have promoted understanding of soldiers’ everyday lives and tasks.

There has also been a strong response to the annual Gallipoli Art Prize, sponsored by Sydney’s Gallipoli Memorial Club, which enters its tenth and final year in 2015. Over the course of the competition the Club has amassed an impressive collection of works by artists from Australia, New Zealand and Turkey, which will form the basis of a permanent display.

Throughout history, men who never served in the armed forces have experienced a sense of shame, as if some vital part of their manhood had been denied. Nowadays, largely because of the changes wrought by the Vietnam War, there is a body of opinion that looks upon the soldier’s profession with unease and contempt. It is one of the contemporary functions of Anzac Day to restore the balance. Art too has a role to play, in bringing us fresh images of those mythologised landscapes of war, with an emphasis on healing and remembrance. If the immediate effect of the Anzac landing was a tragedy for Australian culture, after a hundred years it has become a renewed source of inspiration and a stimulus for a more complex form of national self-reflection.

This article is published in the Artist Profile Special Edition: Your Friend the Enemy. To purchase your copy visit here