When Charles Bean returned home from the war in 1919, he sketched his vision for what would become the Australian War Memorial. He imagined that the building would have separate galleries housing each of the official art and photography collections, and hoped these works would help visitors understand the Australian experience of war. In 2017 the Memorial launched a digital interpretation of these early plans: Art of nation: Australia’s official art and photography of the First World War.
The Official War Art scheme
At the time of the war, ten Australian artists living in England and another five already serving with the AIF were commissioned to record the Australian experience.
- Research the official war art scheme. Do you think it is important to employ artists in this way? Why or why not? Why might the Memorial have appointed so many artists to record the same war?
- Select a work of art in Art of nation that has the “artist’s footsteps” icon. Where did the artist travel? When was the work completed? Click on the “Google Street View” icon: how has the landscape changed since that time?
Will Dyson was the first official war artist attached to the AIF. A well-known cartoonist and proud nationalist, Will was determined to capture the reality of a soldier’s experience on the Western Front.
- Look through the Dyson gallery in Art of nation. Do you think he achieved his intention? Why or why not?
Noted realist painter and respected portraitist John Longstaff was also among the artists chosen to be part of the official war art scheme. Given the rank of honorary lieutenant, he was asked to paint portraits of military leaders and other personnel.
- Find John’s portraits of Lieutenant General Sir John Monash and General Sir Cyril Brudenell White in Art of nation: how has he represented these men as leaders? What techniques has John used to achieve this?
In 1916, some two years before John was appointed as an official war artist, his son was killed in action on the Western Front. Soon afterwards, John painted a tribute to his son titled Portrait of Lieutenant John (Jack) Longstaff by his father John Longstaff.
- Compare this portrait to John’s other paintings: are there any differences that strike you? What might this work have meant to him?