Australia's military has a rich and long-held tradition of embedding artists within its frontline troops.
The longest-running art programme in the country, the Official War Art Scheme documents the experiences of Australian troops in battle and in military industries at home.
From Harold Septimus Power’s somber depiction of packhorses struggling through a muddy field in Belgium during World War I to Wendy Sharpe’s oil on canvas of pop icon Kylie Minogue entertaining peacekeeping forces in East Timor in 1999, these works explore the sensory and visual dimensions of war in ways written history and photographs cannot.
Works by Australia's war artists "play an important role recording and commemorates Australia’s involvement in contemporary conflicts", says a spokesperson for the Australian War Memorial, the government body that commissions the artists.
The newest addition to the pantheon of Australian war artists is 39-year-old Ben Quilty. After claiming the country’s most prestigious portraiture award in 2011, Quilty was commissioned to spend a month capturing the experiences of Australian service personnel deployed in Afghanistan.
"After Afghanistan" is the fruit of his labour - a collection of 21 large-format studio paintings and 17 sketches showing at Sydney’s National Art School Gallery from February 21 to April 3. It will then tour nationally for 18 months before coming to rest at the Australian War Memorial Museum in the capital, Canberra.
A cathartic experience
While in Afghanistan, Quilty used an unusual photographic method to collect material for the portraits. He asked soldiers to face the sun with their eyes closed before opening them and staring directly into the blinding light. At that moment, he snapped a photograph to capture the immensity of their emotional burdens.
But when Quilty returned home and developed the prints, he was not happy with the results. Determined to re-establish a connection with his subjects, he invited a dozen decommissioned servicemen and women to his studio south of Sydney. There, they spent hours posing in live modelling sessions that became a cathartic experience for all involved.
"Part of the process involved getting inside their head and discussing their emotional survival, and I think that process was therapeutic," Quilty says. "Normally they are reluctant to talk to people about it, but they trusted me because I was there… I smelt the fear. You only have to be in Afghanistan for 24 hours to understand the crazy nature of war."
Among the most striking pieces in Quilty’s latest collection is a portrait of Trooper Daniel Westcott. Surrounded by wild red streaks, Westcott’s eyes are maelstroms of congealed blobs of paint struggling to find relief from the emotional weight of war.
The innate vulnerability of the human condition is further explored in a portrait of an anonymous soldier identified as Sergeant P. Sitting upright on a chair, the physically powerful but mentally tormented subject stares blankly into the middle distance, searching for answers he knows will forever elude him.
"I think when Ben paints, he’s not looking for what’s on the outside," says Captain S, another one of Quilty’s subjects - an officer who survived a Black Hawk helicopter crash that killed three of his men. "He’s more after what they’re feeling or what they’ve been through. He’s looking at the inner instead of just the outer."
Nothing to hide
"I learned a long time ago to ignore what people say about my work. And by speaking the truth, it inevitably becomes more powerful."
- Ben Quilty, artist
Quilty is known for pushing the envelope. In a recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, he chastised Australia’s inequitable funding and idolatry of its sports champions at the expense of programmes for artists, writers and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn the artist broke another taboo when he asked his subjects, both male and female, to pose nude in contorted positions on chairs and the floor.
"Some people in the [Australian military] were worried they would cop negative press about the nudity," Quilty says. "They’re the kind who are threatened by art. They think it’s all highbrow and esoteric… but it’s not. It’s just the truth. The subjects feel like I did justice to their stories and I feel like I did the right thing by them and told the truth.
"I learned a long time ago," he continues, "to ignore what people say about my work. And by speaking the truth, it inevitably becomes more powerful."
But John McDonald, an art critic for the Herald who once described Quilty as an artist who paints with a shovel, isn’t so sure: "I’ve spoken with people who adore this show, and others who despise it. There’s a hint of the green-eyed monster about some of Quilty’s critics, but others argue with apparent sincerity that he is romanticising militarism and violence."
Portraits of war
After Afghanistan also includes "portraits" of inanimate machines of war. In an oil painting entitled Bushbasher, Quilty depicts the charred remains of an Australian armored troop carrier as "a symbol of the brevity of life and dangerous nature of deployment" in Afghanistan.
On the same wall is "Kandahar", the artist’s study on the dreaded international air base set in one of Afghanistan’s most restive regions. An angry ball of thick black energy that hovers malignantly over the ground, tentacles thrashing wildly as though possessed by demons, "Kandahar" draws parallels to Munch’s The Scream and the works of Hieronymus Bosch.
Combined with a series of pencil and felt-tip drawings of Afghans whom Quilty met in the theatre, like Brigadier General Noorullah of the Afghanistan National Army, After Afghanistan confronts the psychological consequences of war.
As the collection tours Australia, its messages could prove especially poignant given the country's losses in Afghanistan since late 2001. Australia has an ongoing contribution of 1,550 troops, more than any other non-NATO country, though it will withdraw the bulk of its forces at the end of this year. Two hundred forty-two Australians have been seriously wounded in Afghanistan, and 39 have given their lives. They are the first Australian deaths in combat since the Vietnam War.
"The news of every loss is as hard as the news of the first loss, so there will be a lot of people grieving today and our thoughts with them in grief," said Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard when the 39th casualty - 24-year-old Corporal Scott James Smith - was announced in October last year.
After Afghanistan transcends the stereotype of the stoic and indestructible "digger" used to depict Australian servicemen and women since the Official War Art Scheme was born nearly a century ago.
Quilty "conveys the frailty of the individuals involved at the frontline level of combat", says Katie Dyer, curator of the National Art School Gallery. "They are not portrayed as mythological creatures to be worshipped and glorified, but as ordinary people whose lives have been forever changed by war."