Artists pay tribute to Gallipoli heroes

By Doug Conway

New Zealand and Australian artists pay tribute to the Gallipoli dead through the prestigous Gallipoli Prize. Photo / File
New Zealand and Australian artists pay tribute to the Gallipoli dead through the prestigous Gallipoli Prize. Photo / File

Art can move the observer to tears, but is there a competition quite like the Gallipoli prize for moving the artists to tears?

Those who enter are paying tribute, as often as not, to a long-lost relative who was shot dead at Anzac Cove or gassed on the Somme or bombed at Ypres.

The artists may have carried around their loss, hurt and heartbreak for years or even decades.

The chance to paint it out seems to be a way of cleansing the soul.

In some cases the sorrow and anguish all but seep from the canvas and weep from the walls.

The tears are not all metaphorical. It is not uncommon for artists to deliver their works in person at Sydney's Gallipoli Memorial Club, sponsor of the $20,000 prize, and to sob in the act of handing them over.

"Some turn up in tears," said John Szetu, the club's secretary-manager.

"It has been burning inside them for years, and the competition is an outlet for them to express it.

"It's a release, a burden off their shoulders.

"They have done something for their forefathers.

"Their paintings are a mark of respect.

"And every picture has a story."

The artists get a chance to tell those stories in words as well as pictures.

It's unusual for art competitions to invite the painters to write a few accompanying paragraphs, but in this context it works brilliantly.

The words at times can be as poignant as the images, helping to explain or illuminate the motivation behind the brush strokes.

Chances are the entry is inspired by a digger, especially one of the 102,000 Australians to have sacrificed their lives in war.

In that respect, this year's 43 finalists are no different.

Amber Martin's In His Blood shows modern day soldier Matthew Thornton looking into a mirror and seeing his image split, half of it morphing into his great, great cousin, private Frederick Currey, who died of wounds at the Somme, aged 21.

"They are two related Australian soldiers with similar facial features and the same eyes," she said, "who decades apart signed an oath, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to keep our shores safe."

Sydney painter Alan Jones was inspired by his grandfather, a World War II veteran.

"Because of him and many other Anzacs, me and my brothers were able to enjoy the innocence of youth in the safety of grandma's backyard," he wrote.

"The only battles we have seen were on the football field or with each other."

Queenslander Beryl Wood, whose father-in-law fought in World War I, painted a soldier in the trenches reading a letter from home, surrounded by floating scraps of the letter, perhaps blasted apart.

"Though he rarely spoke of the conditions, he believed it was the little things that helped the fighting men endure that terrible time," she commented.

Sydneysider Bill Nix remembered stopping at an Anzac memorial in northern NSW on a family holiday and pondering the double tragedy indicated by the same surname, Sweeny, appearing twice on the memorial plaque.

"I imagined that Pop and Ma Sweeny's dream was that their sons would return and at least one boy would take up the plough," he said.

"Alas, it wasn't to be. Whether the Sweenys stayed on the farm or moved away we'll never know, but what is certain is that all of the families of those heroes fallen lived in the shadow of grief."

John Bartley, whose grandfather was a Light Horseman who died young, has painted a blood-red work entitled Sunset.

"I like my painting for reasons I do not quite understand," said the country NSW artist, "only that it hits a chord within me that resonates with loss and sadness."

Canberra's Margaret Hadfield, winner of the inaugural Gallipoli art prize in 2006, has painted a modern visitor at Anzac Cove surrounded by images and spirits from the battles of 1915.

"The Gallipoli landscape is spectacular but holds the blood and spirit of far too many young men," she said.

"My visit unleashed an interest in military history that I didn't see coming."

New Zealander Mervyn Appleton painted stretcher bearers whose call "We'll help you Digger" he hoped was heard on the battlefield by his great-uncle Charlie Appleton.

Robyn Sweaney of Mullumbimby, NSW, dedicated the poppies in her Last Light to her grandfather, who fought in France and Belgium, and the thousands of others "who were not so lucky and lost their lives on those muddy fields".

Manilla, NSW, artist Sharyn Jones said her painting of a handshake, Special Bond, sprang from the sadness she felt looking at photos of her nephew and his mates huddled around a campfire in the freezing desert of Afghanistan one Christmas Eve.

One of the judges, John McDonald, said he could not fail to be touched by the number of artists whose relatives fought for their country.

"The prize has given these artists a reason to reflect on the sacrifices and hardships shared by Australian and also Turkish soldiers," he said.

"This is not the same as choosing a famous face to paint for the Archibald or a landscape for the Wynne."

The Gallipoli art prize, to be announced on April 23, is not restricted to Gallipoli or to scenes of battle but honours the artist whose work best expresses the club's creed of loyalty, respect, courage, comradeship, peace and freedom.

It's about keeping those values alive, so that they aren't lost like the objects entombed in the trenches depicted by Sydney painter Geoff Harvey in his archaeology-inspired work Trench Interment.

"Here they lived, ate, slept, fought and often died, surrounded by the hardware of war," Harvey said.

"The ammunition, the digging implements, spanners and their personal belongings are etched by time and history into the fabric of my canvas."

Perhaps it's an artist's way of saying: Lest we forget.

- AAP

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