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'Reality in Flames: Modern Australian Art and the Second World War' opens at the Australian War Memorial
Russell Drysdale (1912–1981), Soldier, 1942. Oil on hardboard, 60.3 x 40.7 cm.

By: Warwick Heywood

CANBERRA.- Modern Australian artists were immersed in the Second World War. They served in the armed forces, worked with labour groups or in factories, and as official artists observing, recording, and interpreting military activity.

Drawing on their immediate experiences, these men and women responded to the upheaval and anxiety of the period to create powerful imagery that explored all aspects of life during war. In particular, they were inspired to create modern and innovative visual forms to interpret the experience of combat, the powerfully destructive machinery of war, and the vast social upheaval produced by global conflict.

Reality in flames is the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to exploring how Australian modernist artists responded creatively to the Second World War. The exhibition consists of 90 works of art drawn from the Australian War Memorial’s collection; taken together, they constitute one of the most diverse and comprehensive collections of modern Australian art relating to war.

Russell Drysdale’s Soldier (1942) is a crucial work in the exhibition, capturing as it does the disquieting mood of a nation at war. It was created at a time when there was great fear that Nazi Germany might triumph in Europe and when recent Japanese attacks on mainland Australia had sent shockwaves through the nation. Concerned about the Japanese raids on Sydney, Drysdale left the city and moved his family inland to Albury. Soldier is one of many works he completed that depicts the men he often saw waiting at Albury railway station, an important junction on the line between Melbourne and Sydney. The soldier’s heavy winter uniform and kitbag, and the dark lighting, help to create a sense of isolation. He waits for a train to take him to his next posting, then possibly to a theatre of war.

Official war artist Dennis Adams traveled through Britain and Europe to cover the Australians fighting there. His work Flak busters (1945) reflects his interest in the advanced technology crucial to this war. It pictures Beaufighters of No. 455 Squadron, based in Norfolk, England, attacking a German minesweeper off the coast of Norway. Framed against a cold and isolated landscape, the ship sits at the centre of a barrage of explosions and jutting shafts of water and light. It is a work in the tradition of Italian futurist art, which explored the forms, textures, and rhythms of speed and the energy of modern life and war.

Sybil Craig was one of three female official war artists commissioned during the war. She covered the home-front production of munitions. Craig’s Girls working in the Container Production Room (Commonwealth explosives factory, Maribyrnong) (1945) depicts women absorbed in factory work. Their bodies work in harmony with the machines and they are shown as confident and in control, performing what was traditionally considered a man’s role. It is one of many works in this exhibition that explore the ways in which gender roles changed during the war.

Many artists were absorbed in the home front’s often desperate yet exciting atmosphere. Patriotic slogans such as “V for Victory” were everywhere during the war. They conveyed the virtues of vigour and resilience. Albert Tucker’s figure in the painting Clown (1943) has a “V” drawn on his forehead, but also displays other patriotic symbols. His red eyes, ringed by blue, form roundels like those painted on British and Australian aircraft. For the artist, such tokens masked the horror of war. Tucker had worked in a military hospital and seen for himself the destruction that war wrought on minds and bodies. Through dramatic works like Clown Tucker suggests that war had a similar corrosive effect on the wider social body.

Frank Hinder’s painting Bomber crash (1949) also explores destruction, drawing on his firsthand experience of a plane crash in 1940. Using an arrangement of futurist-inspired curvilinear forms, Hinder recreated the explosions, flames, and dark plumes of smoke that engulfed the crashed plane. Hinder wrote in his diary of this experience:

Roared up runway – seemed to take long time to get the tail up … getting close to end of field … lot of noise and racket, tried to protect head and face waiting for next bump and crash. Came to rest and flames shot up all round … Before door opened wondered what it would be like to be incinerated.

Reality in flames presents artists’ reactions to the dangers and challenges faced by soldiers abroad and to the complex changes war brought to the home front. It provides a rich visual commentary on the Second World War, while commemorating Australia’s contribution and the war’s enduring impact on our society.

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