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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds BRUCE SCATES: Shell shock is an abiding metaphor for the Great War, and this is one of the most compelling images of shell-shock I’ve seen. It’s Will Dyson’s sketch, the “Fatalist,” and it conveys perhaps better than any photograph ever could the terror of being exposed to an artillery barrage. Dyson completed this sketch in 1917, not long after his first experience of shellfire just in the front line. What was he doing at the front? Artists like photographers served a practical military purpose. Initially, they were appointed by the army and the navy to paint camouflage. Their job was to conceal the big guns that roamed the high seas and battered the fields of Flanders and the Somme.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds But art, like the photography we examined earlier, also came to serve a political purpose. An artist’s brush was as useful as a writer’s pen in creating a nation’s narrative of war, and that was seen as particularly important for the Dominions. New nations– Australia, Canada, and Aotearoa/ New Zealand employed art to celebrate the valour of their soldiers, to render battles somehow heroic, and show their nation’s coming of age. Dyson was Australia’s first official war artist. As you can see by this page on the Australian War Memorial, CEW Bean in his war record section recruited some of the ablest Australian artists of his time, but Dyson was different. Landscape artists like George Lambert or Septimus Power painted across an epic canvas.

Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds Colourful and dramatic, their work depicts guns being dragged forward, lethal military hardware, entire armies thrown one up against another in war.

Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds Dyson’s focus, by contrast, is far more individual– far more intimate. His subject is not so much the battle as the man. In all, the Australian War Memorial commissioned 270 works by Dyson, they were form a gallery all of their own. Today, you can access many of these images on the Memorial’s website. And arguably, there are few more insightful images of what war meant for ordinary men in the line. Dyson captures grief and terror and boredom, endurance and fatalism. He shows men setting forth with determination and confidence, and then stumbling out of the line exhausted, drained, dazed, like this man, the tunneler, broken down by the labour of war.

Skip to 2 minutes and 56 seconds And in that, he differed from the simple, romantic narrative adopted by many war artists. As Dyson saw it, war didn’t say much ennoble men as destroy them. John Monash complained that he presented the digger not as some superhero, but as, and I quote, “a gaunt, haggard man with harshness written on every facial line.” Perhaps the artist’s view was more accurate than the general’s, but we’ll let you decide. What’s beyond dispute is that Dyson sketched with an empathy rare even in an artist. His sympathy for the plight of the common soldier extended even to the enemy. This painting of wounded German prisoners in the Salient was entitled satirically, “The Wine of Victory.”

Skip to 3 minutes and 44 seconds Why not compare Dyson’s work with that of other war artists, both from Australia and elsewhere. [PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]

How to access war artwork

Watch Bruce Scates guide you through the process of accessing war artwork on the Australian War Memorial website.

Note: Websites referred to in this presentation were accessed in early 2015 and there may have been minor modifications to some of the sites since then.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

Monash University

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