A generation of mourning

The signing of the Armistice brought victory for the allies but little sense of triumph, for there seemed too little to show for all the dreadful loss of life. Every Australian community had been affected by the war, and many had lost sons, husbands, fathers, and friends.

Australian artist Hilda Rix Nicholas experienced the tragedy of war firsthand; her husband, Major George Matson Nicholas, was killed in action only five weeks after they were married. According to the family, George had been stationed in the town of Étaples when he came across some works Hilda had made while living there in the years before the war. Captivated by what he had seen, George had sought her out at her studio in London, and the couple fell in love.

  1. Hilda drew this portrait of her new husband shortly after their wedding. What can you learn about George looking at this drawing? Examine his service record: what other information can you find out?

Hilda was devastated by George’s death, and slept on his great coat for years afterwards. She poured her grief into her art, creating a series of paintings and drawings that honoured her late husband and commemorated the sacrifice made by Australian soldiers.

  1. In France was made in her Sydney studio; her models, as in many of these works, were returned servicemen searching for employment. Write a diary entry or letter describing the scene from the perspective of the soldier wearing a helmet. What can you see in the distance? What sounds can you hear? What equipment are you wearing? What has happened to the soldier in your arms? What might happen next?

The war also cast a shadow over the life of German artist Kathe Kollwitz. Both of her sons, Hans and Peter, served in the German Army, but only Hans returned home; 18-year-old Peter was killed in action in the first year of the war. In 1919 Kathe, now a determined pacifist, started work on a portfolio of seven woodcuts entitled Krieg [War], among them was Die Eltern [The parents].

  1. After completing her works, Kathe said: “Now finally I have finished a series of woodcuts, which in some measure say what I wanted to say”. What do you think she was trying to say about the impact of war on families?
  1. Compare Die Eltern Australian artist Vida Lahey’s Rejoicing and remembrance, Armistice Day, London, 1918. Are there any similarities that strike you? What are the key differences? How might the individual experiences of the artists have shaped these works?

In 1927 official war artist Will Longstaff created a powerful work of art that struck a chord with thousands of Australians still grieving for loved ones lost in war. Titled Menin Gate at midnight, the painting was inspired by the unveiling of the new Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, Belgium. Built to commemorate the 350,000 men of the British Empire who died in the fighting in Flanders, the memorial also bears the names of 55,000 men with no known grave, including more than 6,000 Australians.

  1. What symbols can you see in the painting? What might they mean?
  2. Why might this work have been so popular at the time? Do you think its meaning has changed since then? Why or why not?

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