REMNANTS OF COMBAT
The Gallipoli campaign took place in the vicinity of Troy, the site of the most celebrated and legendary conflict of remote antiquity. And the Trojan War itself owes its fame above all to the genius of the poet who commemorated it, and to the place of his poem as the foundation stone of European literature.
The Iliad remains the unsurpassed epic of war because no one has appreciated the tragedy of men enmeshed in the toils of conflict with greater lucidity and unsentimental sympathy than Homer. He sees with absolute clarity the horror of war, and that no sane man would choose death over life. But he recognises that fate can place us in circumstances that offer no honourable alternative to fighting, even when we know that we are doomed to die.
He has a profound understanding of the ebb and flow of courage and confidence, as one man loses heart and another recovers his strength and resolve; the blind poet could even imagine the excitement, the savage thrill that could seize the warrior, as well as the terror and despair that might overcome him at another moment. But, above all, no one dies in Homer without a recognition of his humanity; few if any men fall without a brief recollection that someone loves them, that they are respected members of some community, that parents or wife or children will never see them again.
It is impossible to commemorate a war without an acknowledgment of such complexities; impossible to think about World War I, for example, without recognising the spirit of adventure, the patriotic excitement and the heroic willingness to sacrifice oneself for the common cause that animated so many young men; and impossible to ignore the failures of diplomacy, the abuses of propaganda, the incompetence, at times, of command and the unspeakable horror of mass killing on the modern battlefield.
Several exhibitions this year recall the Great War, among them one at the National Gallery of Victoria and a smaller one at the Art Gallery of NSW; the Melbourne exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, while the Sydney one is not, although the works in the show can be viewed on the gallery website.
The Melbourne exhibition begins with a huge, six-sheet recruitment poster of a young soldier mounted on a horse and the slogan that gives the exhibition its title: “Follow the Flag”. Nearby are other examples of recruitment and propaganda posters, including the famous ones designed by Norman Lindsay: one of these makes ingenious use of the ubiquitous Australian corrugated iron water tank to bring home the message that we must stop the Hun before it comes to this.
The next room, in contrast, presents us with the reality of the war in the trenches, through photographs by Frank Hurley, Cecil Bostock and others, drawings and paintings, and In the summer of 1976, William Delafield Cook took a trip into the parched countryside around Geelong in Victoria. While there he was mesmerised by what he described as a “golden shimmering thing”, a structure that he thought had the grandeur of a Greek temple. He was describing a haystack.
From that summer of 1976 and right through the 1980s, Delafield Cook painted haystacks. But he did not paint haystacks the same way that Claude Monet might have painted a haystack, by recording the subtle, changing effects of light. Rather, Delafield Cook was influenced
June 27-28, 2015 Follow the Flag: Australian Artists and War 1914-45 NGV Australia, Melbourne, until August 16 Mad Through the Darkness: Australian Artists and the Great War Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until October 11 by an 1844 photograph of a haystack by Henry Fox Talbot.
Delafield Cook’s haystacks are, in fact, the antithesis of Monet. They are finely detailed, precise, objective. He aims to turn a seemingly mundane subject into something monumental. He uses a painstaking application of acrylic paint to render every blade of grass and stalk of hay. Interestingly, he never paints clouds, his skies are completely flat. Nor does he paint people. The result is that the viewer’s attention is forced solely on to the haystack.
One of Delafield Cook’s paintings,
A hay- graphic work by Lindsay and Will Dyson, who was Australia’s first official war artist. Unlike some of Dyson’s more direct evocations of the experience of war, his lithograph Compensation (1918) is more ambiguous and unusual in hinting at relations between the soldiers and the local population.
George Lambert’s painting A Sergeant of the Light Horse is one of the great images of the war, but it was painted in 1920 and is reflective rather than urgent in tone. As has so often been observed, Lambert seems to rediscover the figure of the settler as celebrated by the Heidelberg School — a motif that had never really engaged him in his youth — now turned warrior.
Arthur Streeton, who had painted a kind of stack, is on display at the TarraWarra Museum of Art as part of an exhibition, The Triumph of Modernism. Curated by the former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon, the show includes more than 50 key works based on the museum’s collection, which was established by Eva and Marc Besen. The Besens are keen supporters of Delafield Cook, as was Elton John, who once bought almost an entire show of his work.
Delafield Cook was born in Melbourne in 1936 and died earlier this year in London from pneumonia. He carried the same name as his grandfather, who was a painter from the Heidelberg School. As a boy, Delafield Cook was a keen draughtsman, often observing the landscape. In an interview shortly before his death, he said that he grew up around pictures and that painting was always a part of his life.
After formal art training in Melbourne, he was influenced by pop art and had a semiabstract phase before turning to realism and the meticulous rendering of objects, such as the haystack.
Perhaps paradoxically for a painter who was devoted to the Australian landscape, he spent much of his career living and working in Britain. He once said: “If I’m painting Australia, I’m painting, among other things, my thoughts, my
A Sergeant of the Light Horse allegory of settlement in his famous Whelan on the Log (1890), saw the connection between the trials of pioneer life and endurance on the battlefield clearly, and wrote that “the fights against flood, fire and drought in the bush all tell in the field here”. He too became a war artist and this exhibition is an opportunity to see his war pictures in a fresh light, with an enhanced sense of their original purpose and meaning.
Boulogne (1918) is an impressive evocation of the immense effort and mobilisation behind the lines. The city — already in Roman times the principal port for navigation to the British Isles — became the most important base for British and Commonwealth troops landing on the continent during the war, and in particular was a centre for medical treatment: the foreground of the composition is entirely occupied by medical vehicles, although fresh troops seem to be marching towards a train bound for the front.
The animation and anonymous bustle of the foreground are made all the more poignant by the large white masses of the city buildings beyond and the vast expanse of blue sky above. In contrast to the landscape of the trenches, blasted and churned into a chaos of mud by constant shelling, the city seems hardly touched by war. One imagines cafes and restaurants in the squares where city people are still lunching almost as though it were peacetime.
No author conveys the disconnection of life behind the lines from the experience of those at the front better than Marcel Proust, whose characters continue to attend dinner parties or visit brothels even as the conflict impinges to a greater or lesser extent on their habits. The most unforgettable passage concerns the disagreeable Mme Verdurin, who makes much of her preoccupation with the war but, as she reads of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and exclaims at the terrible loss of life, is in reality filled with the pleasure of a croissant dipped in her morning coffee.
Streeton’s other important painting in this room is a view of Mont Saint-Quentin (1919), the scene of an important Australian victory under the command of General John Monash in August 1918 that forced the Germans to withdraw to the Hindenburg line. Unlike so much of the trench fighting during the war, this was a rapid and daring assault that was successfully executed in only a few days. Streeton was taken to the site a couple of months after the event, and presumably is looking up at the hill from the point of view of the attacking army, but where the Germans were so recently dug in only ruins and the charred trunks of trees remain under the sky and clouds. Silence and emptiness reign in place of turmoil and violence, and the impassive movement of the childhood, my sense of place, where I belong.”
Historian and curator Deborah Hart, who has written extensively on the artist, says his art practice was inspired by early photographers and by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Joseph Losey, particularly their intense scrutiny of a seemingly inconsequential object. She adds that his haystacks remain an enduring image — an ephemeral “house of straw” rendered monumental and held forever on the canvas.
The director of the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria Lynn, says Delafield Cook was one of Australia’s most loved landscape painters. She says that A haystack was also inspired by the practice of “making hay”, which he observed in Somerset, England, in the late 1960s.
“A haystack is one of his most well-known haystack paintings,” Lynn says. “The work has an eerie presence that belies its apparent simplicity.
“Built like a small temple in a vast flat plane that is made of the same substance, this everyday temporary structure becomes monumentalised by the artist.
“The artist passed away in March and will be sadly missed, but this haystack remains as testament not only to his incredible skill but his ability to transform his experiences into imaginative and lasting compositions.”
by George Lambert