Australian Art
Artists of the Great War

This exhibition presents artists’ perceptions of the Great War: the conflict as it was described in oil sketches and finished paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints, posters, books, magazines and a commemorative medal.

It begins with a selection of government recruitment posters: initially hearty encouragement but later, after the defeat of two conscription referenda, more desperate appeals to enlist. It then examines closely the work of Australia's first Official War Artist, the remarkable Will Dyson. Press illustrator, acclaimed London political cartoonist and (later) luminous etcher, Dyson’s war work is collectively his masterpiece. Acutely observed and swiftly, deftly transcribed, his depictions of Australian soldiers, whether in extremis or behind the lines, evidence a profound sympathy and a deep humanity.

Some artists, such as John Wardell Power and Hilda Rix Nicholas, display their grief openly. John Longstaff paints a shadowy posthumous portrait of his son Jack, killed in action on the Somme. So much of the art of the Great War is about wounding: there are hospital pictures by Rupert Bunny, George Coates, George Lambert, Daryl Lindsay, Iso Rae, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. And, as well as the blood, there is the mud, of course, and the lice and the rats, the dysentery and the trench foot. It was in that liquescent, primal landscape of trenches and tunnels and duckboards that Dyson discovered in the Australian troops a ‘sense of nearness to the beginnings of things’.

An intense sense of nearness is just what these works of art give us, and in that proximity, feeling.

Artists of the Great War is a collaboration between the National Gallery of Australia and the Australian National University.

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