Artists of the Great War
During the Great War, 16 male Australian artists were appointed by government and the military to document the conflict. Being unable to witness battle scenes at the front line, during the war women artists depicted more personal experiences and routine subjects. Many of them worked as nurses or as volunteers in soldiers’ canteens.
Australian artist Iso Rae was living in the French coastal artists’ colony of Etaples when war broke out; she served throughout the war with the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross at the army base established in the town. Between 1915 and 1919, Rae documented conditions in the camp—hospitals, barracks, recreation huts and tents, soldiers drilling, horses, German prisoners of war—in gentle, understated post-Impressionist pastel and gouache drawings.
Another significant female war artist is Hilda Rix Nicholas. Having had her mother and sister die at the outbreak of the war, in 1916 Rix married Australian officer George Matson Nicholas; he was killed at Flers just five weeks later. The grieving widow shares her loss through many paintings and drawings that convey overwhelming personal responses.
The third woman artist in the exhibition is Dora Ohlfsen, an expatriate painter and sculptor who lived in Rome. Ohlfsen also served with the Red Cross, and in 1919 produced the Anzac Medallion, sold ‘in aid of Australians and New Zealanders maimed in the war’.
Against the dominant, masculinist historical discourse, these artists’ visual testimony shows us women’s civilian experiences of war and of wartime loss.
Iso Rae Etaples, 1915 1915, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra