A major exhibition at the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) brings modern audiences in contact with the ghosts of the Great War, as painters, photographers and sculptors visit the killing fields of northern France and Belgium.
“Salient: Contemporary artists at the Western Front”, which opens on Friday evening, is an exhibition of modern paintings, steel sculptures, stone medallions and prints inspired by the Western Front, alongside artworks by WWI soldiers and official war artists, including George Coates, Arthur Streeton, and Napier Waller.
More than five million people were killed on this hellish 700 km stretch of rat-infested mud-holes and barbed wire between the North Sea and Switzerland.
Today, those once-cratered wastelands are peaceful and green – but, every year, farmers turn over shells and, sometimes, skeletons.
“The contrast between the events that happened in these places and their current idyllic landscapes had a strong emotional impact upon all of the artists involved,” NERAM’s director Robert Heather said.
NERAM and the King Street Gallery in Sydney sent a dozen contemporary artists to the sites where more than 45,000 Australians died between 1916 and 1918.
The tour was a spiritual successor to the same artists’ visit to Turkey in 2014, in preparation for “Your Friend the Enemy”, which commemorated the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign.
Many of the artists had personal connections to the war; their ancestors had fought – and sometimes died – on the Front.
Sydney-based artist Amanda Penrose Hart followed the footsteps of her grandfather’s brother, who fell in France in 1917.
"I think it’s important that 100 years on, we do our bit so that people remember those who lost their lives,” she said.
“The huge numbers of dead and missing left me shaking my head with disbelief.” said Walcha-based artist Ross Laurie. “Boys from my town, like many others, died on these battlefields. How does one paint such a thing?”
Near the Flemish village of Passchendaele in 1917, 28,000 Australians were killed or maimed alone.
The war may have ended a century ago this November, but in many ways we are still living in its aftermath.
“The First World War really defined Australia,” said Brad Manera, senior historian and curator at the NSW Anzac Memorial in Sydney, who will officially open the exhibition.
“It reached into every home in Australia, indeed most homes around the world. It killed millions of people, and disfigured or injured mentally and physically tens of millions more, and Australia was caught up in this huge international event that was notionally happening on the other side of the world, but it was happening to Australians.
“It's part of our education system, it's part of our awareness of ourselves; and our national day is Anzac Day, which remembers a battle fought in the Great War.”
The art works gave even a professional historian like him a new way of looking at the war.
“It's been a real privilege working with these people, and so I hope other historians will see the exhibition. I encourage the widest range of people to check it out, see what they think of it.”
“Salient: Contemporary artists at the Western Front” opens at NERAM on Friday, 23 March at 6pm, and will be on display in Armidale from March 24 to June 3, before touring to Bathurst, Sydney, Moree, Muswellbrook, and Tweed over the next two years