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The Role of an Official War Artist

During the First World War, Australia commenced The Official War Art Scheme, mirroring that of Britain and Canada. It was reactivated during the Second World War, and again for the Vietnam and Korean Wars, in the late 1990s through East Timor, and more recently across Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Lieutenant Will Dyson (left), Australian official artist, sketching, in the ‘Caterpiller’, an intersection of two sunken roads. Two other men rest and smoke a cigarette. German lines were less than 500 yards from this point, and ten days before, Australians of the 6th Infantry Brigade had cleared a number of German machine gun posts in stiff fighting. 29 May, 1918, Picardie, Somme, Corbie Albert Area, Ville-sur-Ancre, France. Unknown Australian Official Photographer / Australian War Memorial AWM E02439

The official war art scheme employs Australian artists to document and interpret the experiences, people, and impacts of war through resulting artworks. Typically, they are deployed to various locations to observe the activities of war first-hand, from the confronting scenes of battle to the more routine processes involved in service. Their work provided Australians with an ‘inside look’ into the harsh realities of war that, at times, may have felt like a distant world away. The Official War Art Scheme was, and still is to this day, run by the Australian War Memorial (AWM).The first official Australian war artist was Will Dyson, whose reputation had been as a successful cartoonist. He was given the honorary title of lieutenant, and in December 1916 he travelled to the Western Front. His drawings produced on location did not aim to heroicise the efforts of war, but rather document the everyday hardships and endurance of the soldiers. His Australia at War (1918) volume remains one of the most significant and important tributes to Australia’s involvement in the conflict.

Murray Griffin, Changi prison camp, early days, (1942, oil over pencil on wooden panel, 63.2 x 84.3cm) AWM ART24480. This work depicts members of the Australian Imperial Force, 8th Australian Division in Changi prison camp. Of this work Griffin noted; ‘I started to paint the life around me. Men showering under the eaves of buildings in rain – it was fresher water than in the tongs. Men doing chores, men dragging trailers loaded with camp necessities, men doing the hundred and one things prison camp required’. It shows conditions prior to the prison camp being provided with any amenities. / Australian War Memorial

The First World War also saw Harold Septimus Power employed as an official war artist. Between 1913 and 1914, Power, already an established artist, lived between England and Australia. When WWI broke out, he followed news of the Australians at Gallipoli and on the Western Front battlefields. On 3 September 1917 Power was appointed an official war artist, attached to the 1st division, AIF, given the honorary rank of lieutenant, and equipped with the required supplies for the job. For three months Power closely observed the daily life of the Australian soldiers in France. Some of his sketches were considered so impressive that he was asked to produce large-scale paintings for Australia’s planned national museum and memorial. He returned to France again in 1918 and 1920 to conduct further research, and many of the resulting paintings are now in the galleries of the Australian War Memorial with very few remaining in private hands.

Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Murray Griffin was made an official war artist in October 1941. He observed his countrymen in action against the Japanese at Gemas and Muar in January 1942 and took part in the withdrawal to Singapore. After the Japanese captured the island on 15 February 1942, Griffin became a prisoner of war. For three and a half years while in Changi, Griffin retained his status as officer and was therefore exempt from forced labour, allowing him to continue his work as an artist. From inside the camp, Griffin produced over 100 artworks documenting the harrowing experiences of a POW, using both provided art supplies and improvised materials including soot, door panels, and sheets of ply from demolished buildings. Griffin is a unique official war artist; in that he is the only one to have shared the experiences of the thousands of Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese in WWII.

Harold Septimus Power (1878-1951) Untitled (Soldiers) oil on canvas laid on wooden panel, 36.5 x 61.5cm / $25,000-35,000

In more contemporary times, where does the role of official war artist position itself? Despite our ability to access content related to war with relative ease in most cases, the official war artist remains a pivotal role. These artists assist us in interpreting and responding to the various atrocities of war, to identify humanity in all its beauty and ugliness, and to remind us of the resilience of the human spirit. 

Megan Cope, for example, was commissioned in 2017 by the AWM to travel to the Middle East accompanying units participating in Operation Accordion. The resulting series of work, Fight or Flight, was primarily inspired by a ten-hour flight she took over the Middle East and took inspiration from maps akin to those from her childhood school years including the Sykes–Picot map of 1916. The Sykes–Picot map was the result of a secret agreement between Britain and France discussing the dissolvement of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The ramifications of this continue to influence conflict in the Middle East. In some of the works, Cope incorporates symbols associated with military communications and uses engine oil to mark specific locations on the maps to highlight some of the broader political issues surrounding modern conflict. 

Artists have the ability to delve deeply into an emotional dimension that can provide society with a voice to understand warfare more closely, which may not be able to be achieved through written histories, or documentary film. Their impact within the broader history of war should not be overlooked as they continue to cultivate meaningful commentary, reflection, and change that can alter the complex fabric of our society.

Olivia Fuller, Guest Contributor

Banner Image (detail): Harold Septimus Power (1878-1951) Untitled (Soldiers) oil on canvas laid on wooden panel, 36.5 x 61.5cm. $25,000-35,000

February 2024