Thursday, April 11, 2013

Michael Breen on Ben Quilty and the collateral damage of Australia's wars

My friend and colleague Michael Breen is the regional NSW correspondent for this blog. Michael lives in the NSW Southern Highlands village of Robertson, a town of 1200 people with some high profile residents, including artists, actors and sporting identities.
After many years as a Jesuit teacher, educator, leader and organizational consultant in Australia and overseas, Michael lived in Western Australia for many years where he established one of WA's leading small management consultancies. I was fortunate to work with and learn from Michael in the early years of my consultancy career.

Michael retired to the Canberra region and now lives in Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands where he continues to write and think about contemporary issues and educates and agitates about social and political issues.

Michael is is regular contributor to this blog. One of his pieces about the Australian Aboriginal outlaw Jimmy Governor is among the ten most read pieces on the blog. He has also written poetry, a piece on the search for Malcom Naden in regional NSW, book reviews, articles on the Sydney Writers Festival, as well as providing  photos from his travels in Thailand and Myanmar.

One of the other residents of Robertson is the artist Ben Quilty who has recently returned from Afghanistan where he was the Australian War Memorial's "official" artist. 

After attending an exhibition of Quilty's "war work", Michael wrote this moving and compelling reflection on the significance of Quiltys work.  Other reviews of Quilty's work are here, here and here.
Review of the Ben Quilty Exhibition After Afghanistan at National Art Gallery School Darlinghurst 
by Michael Breen

“So often artists are the ones who go into difficult situations. Doctors and others go into difficult situations in communities, too, but they don’t make representations of these situations that transform how people see the world. All I am saying is that I want artists to feel they could take leadership in the world, not that their work will simply be relegated to what we call ‘the art world’” 

Carol Becker, Dean, Columbia University School of Arts.

The Old Darlinghurst Gaol is a fitting sandstone crucible to contain Ben Quilty’s “After Afghanistan” exhibition. As commissioned War Artist, Quilty has delivered the ADF and the Australian public more and less than was bargained for. If truth is the first casualty of war, this is not the usual jingoistic propaganda. On the contrary this exhibition is an expressionistic audit of Australia’s presence in a country which historically has conquered its invaders.

These works capture the community costs of collateral damage to the men and women and their families and Australian society endured for their service. They are precious national documents about what war does. Unlike an inanimate camera a war artist’s mind and soul are consumed in capturing and recording scenes from which most of us are protected. These works make demands on the viewer. And are the demands worth the discomfort?

How does he do it?
Quilty’s media vary but his most distinctive work is akin to German Expressionism between World War 1 and World War 11. I see it in the tradition of the Brucker (Bridge) School of Schmidt Rottulf, Emile Nolde and Oska Kokoschke. “The Bridge” was a to be a link between the past of war and a hoped for brighter future.

Quilty asked his subjects to choose a pose which depicted how they felt and thought. All he asked was their nakedness, so their bodily gestures would reflect their inner selves. He treats the bodies as an expressionist. Anatomical detail is not as important as what is below the skin. He enacts Leonardo’s admonition: “A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intentions of his soul, the former is easy, the latter hard, because he has to represent it by the attitudes and movements of the limbs. Represent your figures in such action as may be fitted to express what purpose is in their minds; otherwise your art will not be good”.

As Leonardo suggests Quilty treats the bodies so that they express all this stuff. His thick painterly strokes and pallet knife sculpt below the skin and bone. But when it comes to the faces, they are realistic and as plausible as any face wearing the experiences which carved the features. The emotions ooze off the canvas with the paint. This is the man who painted iconic Australian artist, Margaret Olley to her satisfaction and the admiration of the Dobell Prize judges.

The People.
I noticed “Jim” I’ll call him, going around the exhibition, a moist eyed, cropped straw haired tentative young man. He had an army issue camel back, water carrier. In conversation he told me how hard it was to see what he was seeing and walking around the exhibition was physically painful because of a knee wound. At first when he returned from Afghanistan he found it a welcome change to have nothing to do. But the lack of daily duties, relevance and a meaningful occupation just created a theatre for nightmare scenes. The ADF did offer services to these guys but the only people who understood were “the mates” who had “been there”. They know the context, the losses, the crazy adrenalin rushes and they could cry and drink. The exhibition corroborated Jim’s scarcely credible experiences.

Had chaps like Jim not been moved, shaken, and shattered by what was Afghanistan they would have to have been schizoid psychopaths. They were soft bodies meeting flying metal. Only because they are humans do they suffer the long-term effects of shattered bodies, relationships, families, villages and culture. They embody the recoil of weapons which our soldiers, medics and their families. They also carry the pictures of the soul rasping bastardy to which humanity can sink in war. God knows what all this does to the souls of politicians who decided to send these youngsters.

The artist in society.  
Yes, but who needs this stuff? Has Quilty gone too far? Wasn’t he just meant to capture the glory of war and the gallantry of Aussie Diggers? Shouldn’t he just have been grateful for his free trip to Afghanistan and put a good spin on it like an army does? Many would think like this. I don’t. If the function of art is to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ its most important function may be to show us what we would not see otherwise.

War artists and historians and the media have often censored narratives and images. The objectivity with which politicians engage Australia in war is matched by the subjective experiences of men, women and children of both sides. Quilty’s figures capture the enduring physical, psychological, cultural and social effects of the choice to go to war.

Many a modern artist has settled for anodyne abstractions which will grace bourgeois’ spaces and be traded for faux appreciation and dollars, or “go nicely with the carpet”.  
Not Quilty’s images which will enhance the rooms of our psyches’, those interior rooms of the mind we seldom visit and which will help us burgeon differently.

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