A shared experience

Roger Tolson

Nations go to war, but it is their citizens who experience it. This experience, social and individual, needs to be both recorded and interpreted. Journalists, photographers, and filmmakers, record, and to an extent interpret, historical events. But artists provide a powerful insight into these events through their particular way of seeing the world. In art, the sensuous and the emotional aspects of the experience of war are most effectively realised. Photographs and film, stories and documents, can all tell us about the reality of war; great war art not only shows it to us, it does so with unmediated appeal and in ways that can move us profoundly.

The experiences of Australia, Canada and Britain during the Second World War were shared ones. These countries were, after all, allies fighting a common enemy; they were also nations profoundly and historically linked politically, economically and socially; and, on notable occasions, they were involved in joint military operations. Geography, politics and military events created and shaped threats which demanded responses that were unique to each country. However, the common ground of Shared experience: art and war – Australia, Britain and Canada in the Second World War is the impact the war had on individual lives: the men and women that feature in these works are shown waiting, preparing, fighting, suffering, celebrating.

That we are able today to understand this shared experience is a direct result of the existence, in each country, of official schemes that either employed and commissioned artists to record and interpret these experiences, or purchased works from artists in military or civilian service. Each scheme had its own agenda and priorities, but all these artists were engaged in a common task – depicting what it was like to live and act through the war. Whether it is the exhilarating heroics of the Battle of Britain, the boredom of potato peeling, the resolute aerial bombardment of Germany, the relief of liberation, the ghastly horror of Belsen, or the comforts and loneliness of returning home, the works these artists produced capture the breadth and depth of what the peoples of Australia, Britain and Canada experienced. The stories of the artists themselves are inextricably part of these images, as they adapted and directed their work towards national needs, recognised the importance of recording, and responding to, the events and individuals around them, and undertook the risks needed to complete their work.

The paintings and sculptures in the exhibition are grouped into general themes that reflect these elements, rather than specific events. Battle is the obvious starting point and reflects heroism and excitement alongside the inevitable destruction and loss; but the war also involved waiting and preparing no less – and probably more – than actual fighting, and so Military Service constitutes a distinct section. Civilian Work acknowledges the way in which society was re-ordered, both through the effects of new technology and the need to replace workers and increase output. Both Captivity and Casualties attempt to measure and reflect the constraints and the demands placed on people, and, ultimately, the price they had to pay, both at the time and then through the slow years of healing. Finally, Home and Leisure look at a broad range of experiences: the means of escape, the fleeting pleasures, living with loss, the celebration of peace, and, eventually, the return home.

This is the first exhibition of its kind to explore how Australia, Britain and Canada lived through and recorded the greatest conflict in human history. The works on display highlight notable differences in outlook and expectation, both nationally and individually. Some images do not sit comfortably together; others retain an almost ineffable power to move and disturb. All of them are able to take us back into lives and experiences now distant from our own, but arising out of a time that still affects us, and indeed shapes the way we are.