Wartime issue 52 feature article: Painting on the inside
Australian painters gave us a view of life in European prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War. By Bridie Macgillicuddy
In the European theatre of the Second World War, no official war artist was captured. For the Memorial, the challenge in the galleries has been to portray imprisonment in Europe without having a substantial collection of art works to draw on. With the recent upgrade of the Second World War galleries, we had the chance to re-assess what is on display.
Albert Comber (b. 1916), Justin O'Brien (1917–1996) and Howard Taylor (1918–2001) were each interned in prisoner-of-war camps in Europe. Examples of the art they created during and after extended periods of captivity are now on display in the galleries.
Before they were captured, Comber and Taylor were pilots with the Royal Australian Air Force and O'Brien was a surgical nurse in the army. Both Comber and O'Brien had prior art training, while Taylor had long been interested in aeroplane design. O'Brien later spoke of being on the doorstep of the famous museums of Europe, but unable to enter. Yet their time in captivity gave them endless empty hours to fill with the development of their own artistic talents.
Albert Comber was captured in 1942 when his plane was shot down over southern Italy. He was a prisoner for three years, first in Italy and then Germany, ending up at Stalag Luft III, Sagan. Here he started to paint seriously, teaching art classes and designing scenery for the theatre group. He also spent many hours underground working on the tunnels and that became part of the tragic Great Escape, which cost so many lives. After being taken out of the camp for a forced march west in 1945, Comber was liberated and returned to England later that year. (See his pen-and-ink work on p.26.) He eventually made his way back to Australia and continued to teach art.
Howard Taylor was captured in 1940 and was held for five years; after being moved around different camps, he too was interned at Stalag Luft III. During his imprisonment, he took up drawing, for which fellow internees with art school training were able to offer him instruction. Remarkably for a novice, he worked predominantly in watercolour, and pen and ink – media often regarded as difficult to master, even for an experienced artist. These exercises in technique seem like a precursor to a newfound vocation as an artist, a career he sustained for fifty years.
Justin O'Brien was a prisoner of war for three years, interned initially in Athens, then Poland. During this time he painted portraits of prisoners and German commanding officers, in exchange for art materials.
He too taught art to fellow prisoners and participated in theatre groups. He was a beneficiary of a prisoner exchange in 1944 and returned to Australia. With fellow prisoner and artist Jesse Martin, O'Brien instigated the first exhibition of art by prisoners of war to be shown in Australia during the war.
Comber, O'Brien and Taylor's experiences of adversity were a test of character, with each artist reflecting in positive terms on his time as a prisoner of war and its impact on his life thereafter. The endless hours of inactivity these artists faced now afford today's visitors to the Memorial a richer insight into the experience of Allied prisoners in Europe during the Second World War.
Bridie Macgillicuddy is an assistant curator in the Art section at the Australian War Memorial.