The Australian War Memorial Board resolved in 1937 to commemorate the sacrifices made by Australians in the First World War by commissioning sculpture, stained glass windows and mosaic to complete the Hall of Memory. Napier Waller was invited to submit designs for the stained glass windows and mosaic.

Waller was selected to design and install the mosaic on the basis of his reputation as a large-scale mural artist and mosaicist. His service in the First World War was also considered important.

The commemorative nature of the Hall of Memory commission, its monumental scale and significance in contemporary Australian life must all have held great appeal for Waller. The Hall of Memory was to be a place accessible to all Australians. It was hoped that it would have the atmosphere of a cathedral in which people could quietly contemplate the spirit of sacrifice of those Australians who had lost their lives in the war.

The idea of creating a mosaic, rather than a painted mural, was suggested by the domed Byzantine cruciform plan of the proposed Hall of Memory building.

In December 1946 the Art Committee decided to retain the original concept for the windows to commemorate the First World War. The Second World War, however, would be commemorated on the Hall’s pendentives. These would focus on the army, navy, air force and the women's services. However, work on the mosaics did not recommence until the windows had been completed in 1951.

In March 1952 Waller was asked to prepare drawings for the Hall of Memory pendentives. Waller felt that, to balance the light admitted by the deep blue windows, the plain mosaic walls should be treated in light tones. The figures would be depicted with strong tonal contrasts, interwoven with the surrounding plain walls.

The figures in these drawings emphasise qualities of strength and endurance. Their poses are frontal and each - except the sailor - has its left foot extended forward in the manner of an archaic Greek ‘kouros’. The enlarged, intense eyes are also characteristic of both ancient Greek sculpture and the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna, which Waller had visited in the late 1920s. In contrast, the uniforms and hairstyles are contemporary. The faces express their feelings. The figures are of ordinary men and women, elevated to demigod status by their monumentality and references to antiquity.

Waller combines naturalism, abstraction and symbolism in his final designs for the pendentives. The quality of his drawing, his balanced compositions and his use of light help to unify these varied approaches. The drawings are worked in gouache, chalk and pencil over charcoal, the gouache and brush used to apply small spots of paint, suggesting the effect of mosaic. Each design appears at first to be almost monochromatic. However, a restrained and elegant use of colour adds to the vitality of the works and reinforces Waller's drawing.

The emphasis of the Hall is vertical and the designs for pendentives reinforce this. The positioning of the mosaic figures in the Hall of Memory makes it necessary for the viewer to look up; the eyes of the figures are also raised, encouraging us to follow their gaze up into the dome.

The theme of the dome ornamentation is the ascent of the spirits of the fallen. Our attention is directed to its splendid abstract symbolism wherein we may contemplate sacrifice of the dead.

Waller suggested several alternatives for the dome, including a design based on the Rising Sun emblem of the 1st AIF. He placed two Rising Suns base-to-base to make shafts of light radiate from the centre of the dome to the cornice at the rim.

The rays of light were reduced in number to symbolise the seven States of Australia. They emanate from a central spiritual sun to the cornice. The stars of the Southern Cross are superimposed over the sun.

From the base of the dome stylised hands deliver the souls of the dead through clouds and blue sky to Heaven. The spirits are symbolised by simplified winged coffins, their shapes reminiscent of Egyptian mummies. The geometric symmetry of the dome design recalls Waller's earlier interest in Art Deco. The blue and gold colour scheme, which repeats the colours of the windows, was devised after Waller had settled on the light tone walls.

On the uppermost member of the cornice a classical wreath emphasises that the Hall of Memory is a memorial to the fallen. A flight of black swans symbolises the air and beneath them are bands of stylised water lilies and bull rushes.

Waller's involvement in the project spanned twenty-one years. The Hall of Memory was his largest public work and remains his most physically accessible. He created a work of art that was of its time but not fixed in it, successfully uniting his interest in contemporary issues, ancient Greek and Byzantine traditions and twentieth century style.

Source

Collection Notes (1989) accompanying the art exhibition 'Art in Action'.