The New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) opened two important exhibitions late last month. Salient: Contemporary artists at the Western Front displays moving artworks by a dozen leading Australian artists that express the senselessness of war, while New England High Country: Forty Photographers exhibits images of regional life, landscapes and people. Both run until Saturday, June 3.
Over the next two months we will bring you interviews with the artists, commenting on their work.
“Salient is a fascinating journey into those battlefields that are still the last resting place of so many Australians, and half of them lie in unknown graves beneath these foreign fields,” said Brad Manera, senior historian and curator at the NSW Anzac Memorial in Sydney.
Prime Minister Andrew Fisher had promised an expeditionary force of 20,000 soldiers to “help and defend Britain to the last man and the last shilling”. By 1919, 60,000 had died out of a population of less than five million.
From their baptism of fire at Gallipoli Cove, Turkey, in April 1915, Australian troops were sent to the Western Front, to fight and die on the Somme in 1916, and on the Ypres salient in 1917, where 38,000 were killed or severely injured in a mere eight weeks near Passchendaele.
It’s the numbers that appalled Ross Laurie. The landscape painter, who also farms sheep and cattle in Walcha, was in France and Belgium last year, on the trip NERAM and King Street Gallery in Sydney organised for Salient.
“You can’t quite come to terms with the scale of the slaughter,” he said. “When you got to the cemeteries, you saw a sea of crucifixes. Behind that, there might be a wall that had 40,000 names in it. They were missing. That was the bit that really stuck: they just couldn’t find enough identification for 40,000 people in this battle. So 40,000 here, 70,000 there, 30,000 there, and your head’s pumping like a petrol bowser, trying to make sense of these numbers.”
Every year, farmers still dig up 300 tons of armaments, and the ground is strewn with unexploded shells – as Mr Laurie discovered.
He had walked up a paddock to relieve himself. “Something shiny started to emerge,” he remembered. “I was pissing on a shell.”
Like many Australians of his generation, Mr Laurie grew up with the war.
“We all marched in Anzac marches as little schoolkids, so we had an awareness way back when very young about the First and the Second World Wars, especially the Gallipoli campaign.”
“Boys from my town, like many others, died on many of these battlefields.” He saw the names of three brothers from the same family on a memorial, members of the 33rd Australian infantry battalion formed in Armidale in 1916. His own relatives joined up, but weren’t sent over. “In older relatives in the district,” he said, “there is still a pain from certainly the Second World War, but echoes of the First War pain as well.”
Mr Laurie’s paintings for the Salient exhibition include two oil landscapes of Passchendaele, on the Ypres salient, and more abstract depictions of battlefields.
“They didn’t start like that necessarily,” he said. “The landscape itself was very beautiful and rolling, and you got a sense of the scale of the battlefield.
“I was painting these green fields, but in the end they got more churned up and turgid. I’ve seen ploughed land and land that’s been cleared. I know what fires are like, and dead animals; I’ve had a farm life, so it wasn’t a big jump to imagine what a battlefield would have been like. Add to that the noise and fear, and it would have been unbearable.
“I wanted to get a sense of the bleakness of things, but there's also a beauty in that.”
The war poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Paul Ham’s book on Passchendaele, and Frank Hurley’s war photographs all influenced Mr Laurie’s works.
“Through Frank Hurley images of blown apart trees and things, I used the bunker form to create a quagmiry battlefield.
“In the end, I was trying to make a painting irregardless of the subject; I just wanted to make a painting that worked, but I did feel a sense of overbearing responsibility to make some sort of adequate nod to certainly the people from my town who had fought in this place.”
Salient: Contemporary artists at the Western Front and New England High Country: Forty Photographers run at NERAM until Sunday June 3. For more information, visit www.neram.com.au.