PITY AND THE PROPAGANDA
The exhibition begins with recruitment posters, starting with a relatively straightforward one like Harry Weston’s Get a move on, old man! (1915) in which a wounded soldier, with bayonet fixed, implies that the viewer of the poster has perhaps been a bit tardy in taking up arms, but will clearly do the right thing. A couple of years later, however, after desperately high casualties and the failure of attempts to bring in conscription, the tone grows more urgent, even hysterical. Norman Lindsay’s Quick! has a much more seriously wounded digger, seemingly unable to stand, calling for help while his friend is about to be bayoneted by German soldiers.
Lindsay’s grotesque print of an ape-like Hun menacing the world with bloody claws was pasted up secretly by night in 1917, a wordless image that testifies to the dehumanisation of the enemy in the age of mass warfare. It is interesting to consider that when World War II began, and looking back on the scepticism that tends to be provoked by excessive claims, it was decided that British propaganda should always be firmly grounded in truth.
This first wall ends with a dramatic cartoon by Will Dyson in which a monstrous figure of death stands before the sickly and exhausted figure of the Kaiser and asks, “Any orders today, Sire?” Dyson, an Australian who was close to the Lindsay family, was by now a very successful cartoonist in London and would soon become Australia’s first war artist.
The second wall is entirely devoted to Dyson’s drawings and prints of the war. As Hansen points out in the catalogue, war artists were constrained by fairly strict guidelines and could not directly record the carnage of the trenches or the horror of mutilated bodies. Even dead bodies are rarely shown, and those that appear in the present exhibition are perhaps acceptable because they are treated in a semiallegorical rather than a documentary mode.
Nonetheless, Dyson conveys a powerful sense of the grim realities of trench warfare, including the exhaustion, the boredom and something of the fear. In one case we see a soldier collapsed in sleep, in another reading by candlelight, and in another, The Misery of rest camps, staring hopelessly out of a tent with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
In other images there are moments of humour, as in his portrait of an officer friend ( Mind asserting itself …) in which the slim and dapper Herbertson, with cigarette holder and monocle, interrogates an oafishly heavy-set German prisoner in his fluent German. The same subject is addressed more seriously in another image that sets the prisoner and the interrogator on the