REM­NANTS OF COM­BAT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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