Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 28

The war art of Colin Colahan

Author: Garry Kinnane

{1} The Australian War Memorial art collection contains over 90 works by Colin Colahan. All but a few works are oil paintings: there are one or two ink drawings, yet no watercolours as this was a medium Colahan never used. The works of art were all painted in Great Britain and Europe, between Colahan's appointment as an official war artist in London in August 1942 and his contract's termination in October 1945. Expanding upon his earlier work, the war pictures comprise a broad range of subject matter, from portraits to grouped figures, landscapes, streetscapes and seascapes. The works of art were shipped back to Australia in stages, most of them in the year or so after the end of the war. As a body of work, Colahan's art represents one of the best collections of Meldrum-school painting in Australia and is a fascinating testimony to a personal 'odyssey' undertaken by Colahan as he came to terms with the war in the way he was best suited to do.

{2} Colahan was born in Woodend, Victoria, in 1897; he gave up medical studies to attend the National Gallery School in 1917, and then joined a number of others, including Clarice Beckett, Archie Colquhoun and Justus Jorgensen, in defecting from the Gallery to become pupils of the gifted, didactic and habitually combative Max Meldrum. Meldrum's approach was supported by strong theoretical arguments about optical impressions and representing them by the tonal method of painting. So convinced was Colahan that he not only practised his master's teaching, but he also edited and introduced Max Meldrum: his art and views (1919), giving a full account of the Meldrum doctrine.

{3} Quick, skilful and full of Irish wit and charm (his father was from Galway), Colahan had, by the late 1920s, established himself as one of the most brilliant and best-known of the Meldrum circle. He exhibited frequently, sold well, and was reviewed with close, if not always benevolent, interest from critics with rival philosophies. But in 1930 a shadow was cast on his life when his girlfriend, Mollie Dean, was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant in what became one of Melbourne's most haunting unsolved crimes. Colahan left Australia in 1935 to live in England and ultimately in Italy, and never returned. No doubt this is the main reason why he has largely faded from the Australian art scene, although his name is known to some art historians, and public galleries in several states have examples of his work.

{4} The 'Meldrumites', as they came to be called, were tonalist painters who looked unashamedly to Europe as their source of inspiration, and saw themselves in the great tradition of Rembrandt, Velasquez and Corot. They rejected the self-conscious nationalism of their immediate predecessors, the Heidelberg School, and even more hotly rejected the steady encroachment of modernism, which Meldrum himself saw as ego-based, superficial and technically inferior. Instead, Meldrum believed in recording unmanipulated Nature as it appeared to the 'innocent' eye in the moment of its registering the image; he taught his pupils how to cultivate that form of seeing and to record that image on the canvas quickly and methodically by understanding the tonal gradations that occur when light strikes objects. In this way, Meldrum held that the painter was recording a scientific truth rather than constructing an aesthetic object.[1]

{5} Although Colahan remained essentially faithful to these principles throughout his long career, in practice he, like his friend Clarice Beckett, drifted into a form of 'tonal impressionism', displaying a stronger interest in colour and design than was encouraged by Meldrum. Ironically, too, the Meldrum method, by eschewing fine detail, actually encouraged a modernistic tendency to apply broad areas of paint that could take on a life of their own. Moreover, since Meldrumites had no interest in a select subject matter (such as Australiana), they painted modern life as it occurred about them; they were the first Australians, for instance, to use the motor car as a significant presence in their pictures. So despite their dedication to the classical tradition, Meldrumites were to a degree pre-modernists who unintentionally helped to further the cause of modernism in Australian painting, a cause which was gathering momentum in the late 1930s.

{6} By the time Colahan became a war artist he was at the peak of his ability, combining the tonalist strengths of Meldrum's method with his own lively sense of colour, design and felicitous subject matter. His commitment to oil painting was a direct legacy of his Meldrumism, as were his method and speed at the easel. And like most of his confrres, he was an excellent mimetic portraitist. But Colahan developed into a more interesting painter than most of the school, and one significant factor in this was his experience of working as a war artist.

{7} Meldrum influenced his pupils in life as much as art and, following his example, they were all professed pacifists and refused to have anything to do with the First World War. It is interesting, then, that when the opportunity presented itself to Colahan to become a war artist in the Second World War, he had moved sufficiently away from Meldrum's influence to agree to the job without a moment's hesitation. Two other Meldrumites -- Percy Leason and Archie Colquhoun -- approached the Australian War Memorial asking to be employed as war artists, but neither was appointed. The two chief figures of the group still in Melbourne at the time -- Justus Jorgensen and Meldrum himself -- remained committed pacifists and would have nothing to do with any participation in the war effort.

{8} It was opportune for the Australian War Memorial that artists of the calibre of Colahan, Stella Bowen, William Dobell and others were living in England when war broke out. Colahan had married and bought a house in London, and had begun to raise a family. Early in the war, his Chelsea house was bombed, destroying many of his long-loved pictures. Colahan was approached by Louis McCubbin, of the National Gallery of South Australia and a member of the Australian War Memorial Board, offering him the chance to become an official war artist. McCubbin was prompted by the art connoisseur Chester Beatty to consider Colahan, whose work the latter had recently viewed in London; in Beatty's opinion Colahan was 'the best portrait painter in England today'.[2] McCubbin very likely knew of Colahan's work in Melbourne prior to 1935.

{9} Colahan was appointed in the first instance for three months, taking up his post in August 1942. He was given the status of captain (but apparently not the rank), was paid two guineas a day plus a clothing and other allowances, was to turn over all his work to the Memorial and was not do any private work during the period of his appointment. Colahan was asked to concentrate his efforts on Australian involvement (especially the RAAF) in the European conflict. He did not especially want to wear the uniform, but soon discovered that it could be dangerous to be found without it making sketches in militarily sensitive areas, where one might be challenged or even arrested for spying.

{10} His first period of war work involved travelling about Britain. He went to Plymouth, where he did studies of the air-force base on Plymouth harbour and numerous versions of the Sunderland flying boats stationed there. And he went to the north of England and Scotland, where he painted gentle landscapes of Australian servicemen mingling with the townspeople, and scenes of Australian timberworkers cutting and milling in the open countryside.

{11} Colahan also did portraits of RAAF personnel. An especially pleasing one is Ground Staff Flight-Sergeant 'Ossie' Ferguson (Plate 1) who, with his lean-jawed half-smile, eyes narrowed with good humour (or is it circumspection?), rakish hat and casual pose, makes a positive assertion of Australianness. Colahan's method here has a spontaneous vitality about it, quite impressionistic in the open-textured application of the paint, so that the effect is one of life, not academicism.

22312s.jpg Colin Colahan
Ground staff (Sergeant Oswald ['Ossie'] Ferguson) 1942
oil on canvas 60.9 x 50.7 cm
Australian War Memorial (22312)


{12} Perhaps the best of Colahan's RAAF pictures is Ballet of wind and rain (Plate 2); it was actually painted late in his war service, in 1945 in Holland. Among the many new forms of subject matter that the war opened up for him was the scene of grouped figures, in this case four airmen crossing a field. The paint is applied again with impressionistic 'adjacency', with dabs of pure colour serving to create the impression of movement and shimmer. The feeling of space and the elements -- the wind, rain and light playing on the bodies of the airmen, who are positioned like a chorus line -- make a lyrical and memorable arabesque out of an otherwise mundane event.

25701s.jpg Colin Colahan
Ballet of wind and rain 1945
oil on canvas 50.8 x 60.9 cm
Australian War Memorial (25701)


{13} In August 1944 the Board appointed Colahan to a second term, but this was to prove markedly different from the first; whether he volunteered or was requested to do so is not evident, but he was to undertake a journey or series of journeys of a very different tenor from the previous one, taking him into the war-torn regions of France, Belgium, Holland and Germany in the wake of the Allied push towards Berlin, generally known as the 'Normandy outbreak'. The only way of tracing Colahan's movements at this time is on the evidence of the pictures themselves, and since they were not always dated there is inevitably guesswork involved. He was issued with a Ford utility for his personal use and seems to have had the freedom to move around as he chose.

{14} The pictures Colahan produced on his Continental forays record a world of human suffering and civic destruction. He painted scenes of homeless families, lines of eastbound convoys passing lines of westering refugees, such as East meets west (Plate 3), in which a pastoral landscape is dramatically divided by the passing lines. This strong picture nicely balances several pictorial and thematic contrasts.

26247s.jpg Colin Colahan
East meets west (first British convoy en route to Berlin) [1945]
oil on canvas 60.3 x 80 cm
Australian War Memorial (26247)


{15} He had the smell of death and sickness in his nostrils, too, as he accompanied units into front-line regions, evidenced in his evocative Front line medical unit (Plate 4). He was still travelling with the convoys in January 1945, in what was proving to be a cold and dismal winter. Some of his scenes show trucks and troops deep in snow. In February he came down with bronchial pneumonia and had to spend some time in a Belgian hospital recovering. In Antwerp he painted a pathetic group of imprisoned and dejected collaborators looking already like figures of death, and across the border in Cologne he depicted a group of what appear to be American troops looting a wine cellar.

26237s.jpg Colin Colahan
Front line medical unit [1945]
oil on canvas 63.6 x 76.2 cm
Australian War Memorial (26237)


{16} As he pushed into Germany he saw more and more deeply affecting sights, and he was moved to some of his most powerful statements on the effects of war. Among these are depictions of the flight and despair of German townsfolk, as well as bombed homes and cathedrals in Berlin, and a noteworthy trio with the titles The towns of Germany, The bridges of Germany and The roads of Germany, which attempt to capture the epic scale of waste that it all signified. In The roads of Germany (Plate 5), a breathtaking sweep of undifferentiated humanity leads across a stone bridge, along the road into the foreground, and curves up the hill to pass us; as the push of bodies gets closer, we discern individuals, culminating in an attractively dressed young woman acting in a way Colahan expressly admired in women -- like a peasant, using all her strength to push a laden cart of possessions towards the crest. The theme is timeless and Brechtian, about human determination to survive the worst that life can throw at it. This and its companion pieces are wonderful paintings, strong and deeply felt, at once heroic and appalling.

26246s.jpg Colin Colahan
The roads of Germany 1945
oil on canvas 60.2 x 80.2 cm
Australian War Memorial (26246)


{17} Colahan's training had prepared him well for this work; to capture an image involving movement and the 'rightness' of the moment requires, as any photographer knows, speed and good judgement (and a little luck). Colahan had sufficient speed to paint -- in oil -- and sufficient skill not to sacrifice clarity and atmosphere, in rapidly setting up his easel and brushing-in the image the eye had been first struck by; it was what Meldrum had taught for years, and the finished work projected, not the relatively unmanipulated reportage of photography, but the poetic rhetoric of classical painting.

{18} War artists took many different approaches to their role. Some were concerned to depict the heroism of the troops, or the central importance of the technology. The English artist Paul Nash believed that machines, not men, were the real protagonists of the war.[3] Other artists, such as the Australian Ivor Hele, worked as close to the front line as possible so as to capture the intensity of the action. Colahan took a different tack. For him, it was the human and cultural drama, and the consequent depths and heights it provoked in the players, that constituted the real subject matter of the war. The soldiers interested him only when they were at their least mechanical; when they were being human, engaged in the simple normalcies, he saw something in them to paint. In his view of the war, man and woman, soldier and civilian was caught up in a struggle that actually intensified the everyday experience of living. We can see this in several paintings Colahan did of London street life coping with disruption and fear, such as Waterloo Station (Plate 6).

25699s.jpg Colin Colahan
Waterloo Station 1945
oil on canvas 76 x 50.5 cm
Australian War Memorial (25699)


{19} Probably painted on his return to London in late 1945, this work presents a commonplace scene transformed by the circumstances of the moment, dominated by the fact that London had almost no street lighting. The deep blue shadows that obscure individual identity in the figures, linking them with the dark and threatening space above them, are punctuated with small flashes of light and colour, increasing the drama and mood of emotional occasion. Imperiously above the cast of lovers is the cold eye of the station clock marking off the hours, made more pressing and sinister by the two MPs in the wings -- coughing as the lovers kiss, as it were. The picture iterates that it is 'Time' that is against you, and so every second becomes charged with value. The picture has the poetry of the epiphanic moment; the freezing of instant that separates it from less-revealing instant and from the blur of life's constant motion, precipitating and fixing an image that represents a general, not merely a personal, truth. In this kind of art it is not realism, design or technique that strike us, but the power of revelation. The picture says more about the war in London than all the technological illustrations and all the heroic action paintings put together.

{20} How are we to assess Colahan's achievement as a war artist? If war art is too often undervalued, it is not for its technical inadequacies, surely, but for the limitations of its vision. No war art can reach beyond the superficial if it does not recognise that war is tragic and dehumanising, as well as ennobling, and that it is not a subject for the development of merely aesthetic concepts.

{21} Colahan remained a humanist in his war work, and his technical abilities were always subjected to the 'traditional' interests of that philosophical outlook. He looked in the margins for the moments of human interest rather than military ones, and in doing this he alerts us to the real price paid in warfare. And his war pictures persistently remind us of the strange relation that war activities have with everyday, peacetime activities: people continue to hang out washing, plan for the future while farewelling at the station, cut timber in the countryside, enjoy a bottle of wine from a cellar. This sense of war encroaching on, intensifying or simply making more noticeable the ordinary tenor of living is perhaps the most affecting aspect of Colahan's war art. It suggests that it is the subject that matters most in war art, not the process. This is perhaps one reason why modernist painters often have difficulty as war artists, for their subject is generally their own method, and this leaves no place, or at best a minor place, for a referred subject.

{22} Colahan himself was changed both as a person and as a painter by the journey he underwent in his war work. Through the 1920s and 1930s he had enjoyed a somewhat pampered bohemianism that eventually saw his painting become bogged down in routine portraits, landscapes and nudes in studios. His war work exposed him to a new range of subjects that brought out in him an acknowledgement of violence and suffering, and the sympathies required to represent them faithfully. In this he was not only confronting himself as a man, but expanding himself as a painter. His work grew stronger, more colourful, more intense, more vital and open-textured but less conventionally 'beautiful'. If the Memorial collection of his paintings were ever to be shown together, the value of his achievement and the narrative shape and drama of his war odyssey would be plain for all to see.


[1] A full account of Meldrum's tonal theory can be found in Colin Colahan's edition of Max Meldrum: his art and views, Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1919.

[2] Unsigned letter to Louis McCubbin, 7 January 1942, Australian War Memorial Archives, Canberra.

[3] Meirion and Susie Harries, The war artists, Michael Joseph, London, 1983, p.252.

About the Author

Garry Kinnane is a senior lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Melbourne, with a particular interest in Australian cultural studies and biography. He is the author of George Johnston: a biography (Nelson, 1986) and the forthcoming Colin Colahan: a portrait (MUP, 1996).