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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Australian War Memorial breaks new ground to honour war art

Vying for honours of one sort or another has long occupied artists as they seek any leg up along the way to succeeding in their art career.  But the oldest prize in Australia and perhaps the least recognised - although I would argue, the one with the highest intrinsic value - is that of the Australian War Memorial's 'Official War Artist'.

And it has quite an exceptional honour roll, Rick Amor (East Timor), Jon Cattapan (East Timor), Peter Churcher (War on Terrorism), George Gittoes (Afghanistan), Lewis Miller (Iraq), and Wendy Sharpe (East Timor), to name just a recent few. 

Yet the works produced and the stories they tell are rarely celebrated, in the sense that other award-winning contemporary artworks may be.  But as the centenary year of the end of World War One approaches, it is an opportune time to reflect and bring these works to the forefront of our national consciousness.  And in my mind, they are that significant.  Let’s not forget the extraordinary circumstances under which they were created.

Well, the Australian War Memorial has done just that.  This month the AWM launched Art of nation: Australia’s official art and photography of the First World War, a digital interpretation of the earliest plans for the Australian War Memorial.

Australian official war historian and Memorial founder Charles Bean sketched the design for this building in 1919 as he returned home to Australia following the First World War.  That design has been digitally created by the AWM, and via a striking portal puts on display a vast array of paintings, sketches, artifacts, maps and important documents.

The AWM introduces the display saying,

During the war, artists and photographers were deployed to the front to witness and record the war first hand.  Bean’s imagined building contains separate galleries housing the official war art and photography collections.  The large paintings are exhibited in a dedicated art gallery for the first time.  The photography gallery displays a recreation of the first major exhibition of Australian official war photography in London in May 1918.

The interactive display takes viewers through the imposing pillared doors of this virtual gallery, where they can view artworks and explore maps that trace the journeys of the artists and photographers.  Photographs and sketches have been pinned to maps, allowing viewers to explore where Australians served and, by using Google Street View, what these places look like today.

The AWM explains how animations attached to photographer Frank Hurley’s composite images reveal how these works were created, while a “magic lantern” slide projection features the early colour photography process used to record the war.

To view Art of Nation, click here.

Photo 1:  H Septimus Power, Bringing up the ammunition, Flanders, Autumn 1917, Australian War Memorial

Photo 2:  Charles Bean's sketch of his Memorial, Australian War Memorial

Photo 3:  The AWM's digital museum and gallery portal

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne Australia.

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