PITY AND THE PRO­PA­GANDA

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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