War is often seen as a death knell for the arts, but during the first world war the Australian government mobilised some of the country’s most renowned expatriate artists to paint the conflict. Hired essentially as eyewitnesses to war, these men were stationed at the front and tasked with creating art on the battlefield.
The idea of using art to interpret and commemorate the war was first raised by Will Dyson, an Australian expatriate cartoonist working in Britain, who went to the Western Front as Australia’s first official war artist in late 1916. Dyson drew candid studies of Australian soldiers. In images such as Coming Out on the Somme (1916) he deftly captures the glazed detachment and vacant stares of the men who had just returned from, as he described it, “gazing on strange and terrible lands”.
Perhaps sensitive to the public at home, most Australian official artists avoided sketching the graphic violence of the war. But there were some exceptions. Will Longstaff’s sketchbook, for instance, contains an image of a dismembered leg, bone protruding from a mess of flesh and cloth. His composition shows the severed limb in the centre of the sketch with a grassy field of poppies in the background, an arrangement at odds with the human evidence of the impact of war.
By 11 November 1918, the Australian art collection consisted of an eclectic array of images of the battlefield. But it represented a very narrow view of the Australian war experience. Most official artists had been sent to France and Belgium. The eyewitness role of artists – a position they did not challenge – meant they painted only what they observed at the front. As a result, the collection was dominated by paintings of the soldiers and battlefields in Europe. Other theatres of war, such as the Middle East where only George Lambert had been stationed, were represented by much fewer images.
The focus on the Western Front meant the army was privileged over other services, such as the Navy and Flying Corps. The absence of the Navy was particularly criticised by members of the Australian press at the time, who complained that while Britain and Canada had employed their best artists to paint naval pictures, the Australian Government had done nothing.
The Canadian and British art schemes also made concerted efforts to include the home front in their collections. And they employed women artists, albeit to paint women’s wartime labour, such as workers in factories. Additionally, the Canadian art scheme hired painters from a range of Allied countries, embracing diverse styles and interpretations of the conflict.
The Australian collection was more nationalistic in tone, employing only Australian artists. While some of the nation’s most eminent artists of the day painted for it, lesser known artists, many of whom had served in the Australian Imperial Force, were also commissioned.
Often images that less skilfully portrayed the war were included because of their eyewitness value, such as works by Ellis Silas, who had served as a signaller on Gallipoli in 1915.
The Australian collection also stood alone in its neglect of the war experience at home and of women artists. Missing from the collection were images of the preparations for conflict, the training camps, the embarkation of troops, women’s wartime efforts and experience, (including their roles as nurses and volunteers in the warzone and as paid or unofficial workers at home), and of the bitter political disputes that divided Australia during the war.
These lacunae in the collection were addressed to some extent in the decades after the war. But even then, the focus remained largely on a battlefield narrative – more narrowly defining “war experience” than either the British or Canadian art.
George Lambert’s iconic painting of the Australians climbing the cliffs on Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April 1915 is a fascinating example of post-war mythologising. Despite travelling to the peninsula in early 1919 to study the battlefields and create as accurate a representation as possible, he took some artistic liberties with this canvas.
Veterans complained that the soldiers should be depicted in the peaked cap of the early uniform they had actually worn in 1915. But Lambert painted all the men wearing the slouch hat, which had become synonymous with the Australian soldier, consolidating the painting’s distinctly Australian character.
Other images also show an emerging national mythology. Dyson’s cartoons and sketches, many of which were a powerful indictment of the conduct of the war, represent ideas about an Australian type.
He portrayed the humour associated with the larrikin soldier in images such as Small Talk (1920). Depicting two soldiers in conversation in a bomb crater, he captures their droll joking: “No Brig., I says send me back to the boys – the transport’s no good to me I never joined the war to be a mule’s batman!”
Arthur Streeton painted the battlefields where Australian soldiers fought. He saw in soldiering life a deeper and more meaningful example of the development of a particularly Australian masculinity: “It[̓s] extremely novel and exciting over here and it’s the only way in which to form any idea of Australian manhood.”
Many official artists drew on the devastated landscape of the battlefield as an allegory for the destruction wrought by war. Taming the Australian bush, a trope popular with Australian audiences before the war, became survival on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East.
George Lambert was the only official artist stationed in the Middle East during the war. He interpreted this theatre in terms of his experience painting the Australian landscape. The light and colours of Australia permeated much of his wartime work, framing the experience of the soldiers and their environment in familiar imagery that made the conflict appear more immediate for audiences at home.
Australia did not employ any women as official painters during the war, but female artists created numerous images of their wartime experience, and their images show what the collection might have gained had they been commissioned. Australian born artist Iso Rae’s painting of the military camps in France was later acquired for the collection.
Australia’s first world war art collection has been revised and reshaped across the last century and now represents a broader experience of the conflict from a more diverse range of artists. But the works created during and immediately after the war fed into a national mythology that privileged a narrative of the Australian soldier on the battlefield, coming at the expense of a more nuanced story of Australia in the war.
Since the beginnings of settler occupation in Australia, the kangaroo has been claimed at once as a national symbol and as a type of vermin to be destroyed en masse. In Kate Clere McIntyre and Michael McIntyre’s recent award-winning film, Kangaroo: A Love Hate Story, Sydney academic Peter Chen sums up this stark contradiction: “Kangaroos are wonderful, fuzzy, they’re maternal, and they’re also a pest that should be eliminated wholesale”.
The killing of kangaroos by Europeans began at exactly the same time that the species was first identified. Shooting, naming, describing, scientifically classifying, sketching, dissecting, eating: these things all played out simultaneously as soon as Cook’s Endeavour got stranded on a reef in far north Queensland in June and July 1770.
Lieutenant John Gore was the first to shoot a kangaroo; Cook noted that Aboriginal people called this animal “Kangooroo, or Kanguru”; the ship’s artist Sydney Parkinson produced two beautiful sketches of these creatures; and Joseph Banks went ashore to hunt with his greyhound and “dress’d” a kangaroo for his dinner.
Bits and pieces of dead kangaroos were shipped back to England, where Banks presented them to George Stubbs, an artist famous for his anatomical accuracy – and who had made his name as a painter of thoroughbred horses and hunting scenes. Stubbs worked with a stuffed or inflated pelt and drew on Parkinson’s sketches to produce the first painting of this newly-identified species, Portrait of the Kongouro from New Holland (1770).
An engraving of this painting – with the kangaroo gazing back over its shoulder (curiously? Is someone pursuing it?) – was used to illustrate the bestselling 1773 publication of Cook’s journal. As Des Cowley and Brian Hubber have noted, further engravings were made, the image began to circulate, and soon “the kangaroo had entered the European popular imagination”.
The kangaroo hunt quickly became a recognisable genre in colonial Australian art. Joseph Lycett was transported to New South Wales in 1813, a convicted forger. His Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroo (c. 1817) and Aborigines hunting kangaroos (1820) give us two early examples of “ethnographic” landscape painting where Aboriginal people hunt kangaroos in a fantasy precolonial space untouched by the impact of European settlement.
In other works, however, Lycett placed Aboriginal hunters alongside settlers as mutual participants in the developing social and economic life of the colony. In these early days of settlement, kangaroos were a vital food source.
Lycett’s Inner View of Newcastle (1818) depicts a settler, a convict and an Aboriginal man walking in single file with four kangaroo dogs (usually, greyhound, deerhound and wolfhound crossbreeds); the convict is carrying the carcass of a freshly killed kangaroo over his shoulder.
Lycett’s View on the Wingeecarrabee River, New South Wales (1824) takes us down to the Southern Highlands, inland from Wollongong – where a settler with a musket, an Aboriginal man with a spear and two kangaroo dogs are all chasing down a single kangaroo.
Augustus Earle was a freelance professional artist who had travelled around the world – with Charles Darwin, among others. He spent two and a half years in Australia in the mid-1820s, chronicling metropolitan and bush scenes. His painting A Bivouac of Travellers in Australia in a Cabbage Tree Forest, Day Break (1827) gives us an idyllic scene of Aboriginal and settler companionship in the wake of a kangaroo hunt.
A group of settlers and two Aboriginal men are arranged around a campfire, waking up, preparing breakfast, and tending to a horse. There are two kangaroo dogs curled up and sleeping, and in the foreground of the painting – in the shadows, lying beside a rifle – is a large, dead kangaroo.
S. T. Gill is probably the best known local artist to represent the kangaroo hunt as an organized recreational event. Colonial hunting clubs were established across Australia in the 1830s and 1840s; the first “meet” in Victoria, for example, was in 1839, organized near Geelong by the Indian-born military officer and pastoralist William Mercer. Squatters bred packs of hounds and wealthy locals and visiting dignitaries would be invited to join in the hunt and all the social occasions that went with it.
Foster Fyans was the Police Magistrate of Geelong and helped to oversee the dispossession of Aboriginal people across the western district frontier. “A noble pack of hounds was kept up by gentlemen squatters who met every season”, he recalled much later on, “hunting twice and thrice a week, and meeting at each other’s houses, where good cheer and good and happy society were ever to be met”.
Kangaroo hunting helped to consolidate squatter power and influence, lending it an available rhetoric of pleasure and merriment. No longer dependent on the kangaroo as a source of food, landowning colonists soon learned how to enjoy the thrill of the chase and the kill for its own sake, as a blood sport that came to define their social world.
Gill was a prolific chronicler of colonial life; his Australian Sketchbook (1865) included one scene, Kangaroo Stalking, in which a settler with a gun and an Aboriginal man hunt kangaroos together. In 1858 he produced a series of three lithographs under the general title Kangaroo Hunting. The first, The Meet, shows a gathering of men outside a rustic colonial homestead, with their horses and dogs (and some chickens; and a magpie on the roof). One of them has the conspicuous trappings of a wealthy squatter, tall, commanding, elaborately styled in black riding boots, yellow waistcoat, and scarlet jacket.
The second, The Chase, puts the squatter into the foreground, leaping over a fallen log on his powerful white horse. The reckless excitement of the hunt is obvious as the settlers gallop across the dangerous terrain, whips raised. The dogs are chasing a kangaroo, which is retreating into the distance.
But the third lithograph, The Death, seals the animal’s fate. A squatter stands beside his exhausted hounds as a hunter readies his knife to take the dead kangaroo’s tail. Another hunter lifts his hat, looking back; perhaps he is greeting a group of Aboriginal people who are approaching in the background. The leader of this group – a family? – is carrying a spear; he may also be returning from a hunt.
There is no sense of impending frontier violence here, but the lithograph does seem to register the differences between settler and Aboriginal relationships to the body of the dead kangaroo: who claims possession of it, and for what purpose.
Many notable visitors participated in organized kangaroo hunts: Charles Darwin in 1836 (“my usual ill-fortune in sporting followed us”), Britain’s Admiral of the Fleet Henry Keppel in 1850, the novelist Anthony Trollope in 1871.
The Duke of Edinburgh came to the colonies in 1867 – the first royal visit – hunting kangaroo in South Australia and then travelling out to Victoria’s western district for more sport.
The Russian-born colonial artist Nicholas Chevalier accompanied him on tour, staying at the squatter John Moffat’s luxurious homestead Chatsworth House at Hopkins Hill, where he sketched a number of hunting scenes. The Duke himself shot at close range over 30 kangaroos trapped in a yard; he got the locals to preserve the skins and claws.
A few years earlier, Chevalier had joined an expedition to the Grampians, producing two significant landscapes. Mount Abrupt (1864) shows an Aboriginal family peacefully camping on a plateau above a gully, with cattle grazing on the pastures behind and the mountain in the background. This family is not (yet) dispossessed from what is clearly settler property.
Mount Abrupt and The Grampians – produced the same year and published as a lithograph in Charles Troedel’s The Melbourne Album – gives us the same perspective of this mountain. But now there is no Aboriginal family. Instead, a group of settler hunters and their hounds ride roughshod over the place this family had once occupied, chasing kangaroos. It is as if the hunt itself has erased any trace of Aboriginal occupation of land. Its depiction is an expression of settler triumph over both native species (the kangaroo will surely be killed) and Indigeneity (Aboriginal people have been dispossessed).
Godfrey Mundy was another officer who had served in colonial India. He came to Australia in 1846, where he held a senior role in colonial military administration. He was also the cousin of Sir Charles Fitzroy, who by this time was Governor of New South Wales. Together, they went across the Blue Mountains on a month-long journey that became the basis for Mundy’s bestselling diary and narrative of colonial development, Our Antipodes (1852).
Mundy also illustrated his book; one of the illustrations is titled Hunting the Kangaroo. Here, two hunters are in hot pursuit of a kangaroo, with their hounds leading the way. One of the hounds has the kangaroo by the throat; the other lies injured at its feet. Interestingly, Mundy depicts himself as one of the hunters, with his initials “G.M.” branded on the shoulder of one of the horses.
On 30 November 1846, Mundy writes, “the resident gentlemen of the vicinity…attempt to show [us] the sport, par excellence, of the country”. But they find only one kangaroo, which eludes them. The landscape makes the kangaroo hunt difficult and dangerous, with uneven ground, tree stumps, and so on. Mundy rides “at full speed into the fork of a fallen tree” and has to “retreat”. But in his sketch, he is still proudly mounted on his horse and in full pursuit; and the kangaroo is about to die. This is the kangaroo hunt sketch as wish-fulfilment, a fantasy conclusion.
Sympathy for the kangaroo
Edward Roper was a keen naturalist and artist who travelled around the world, coming to Australia in 1857. His landscape A Kangaroo Hunt under Mount Zero, the Grampians (1880) has four hunters galloping through a woodland of eucalypts and grass trees, chasing three kangaroos. A long brushwood fence separates the hunters from their quarry. The riders and their hounds are approaching the fence at break-neck speed, highlighting the thrills and dangers of the chase; this is their land now, and they ride across it as a post-frontier expression of settler freedom and exhilaration.
Roper’s After the Flying Doe gives us a similar scene, although with a closer view of everything including Mount Zero, which now looms large in the background. There is no fence in this version: two hunters on horseback are pursuing kangaroos, with a couple of hounds racing along in front.
Unusually, the kangaroos themselves are in the foreground of the painting. The “doe’s” femininity is apparent in the delicate representation of her features, and possibly there is a joey peeking from her pouch. It looks like this painting wants to invite some sympathy for the female kangaroo’s plight by placing her in the foreground, emphasizing her gender and invoking her directly in the title.
What happens when male hunters kill a female kangaroo? “Colonial Hunt” is the first poem published in Australia on an Australian topic; it appeared in the Sydney Gazette in June 1805. Here, a female kangaroo (“Kanguroo”) is pursued and trapped by a hunter and his dog. “Fatigu’d, broken hearted, tears gush from her eyes”, the poet writes, as she realizes her fate.
The kangaroo that weeps when it dies offers a rare moment of sentimental identification with a native species that by 1805 is already a target for extermination. We don’t see kangaroo tears again until Ethel C. Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo (1902). In this famous children’s story, a female kangaroo’s sadness over the ecological toll of settlement is now shared by all native species: “Every creature in the bush weeps”, she says, “that they should have come to take the beautiful bush away from us”.
Organised hunts could kill any number of kangaroos; alongside hunting meets that pursued individual roos as game, squatters also organised large scale drives or battues, which could see thousands of kangaroos rounded up, slaughtered and left to rot.
Kangaroos are no longer hunted on horseback, of course. But small – and large -scale killing continues unabated. Recently, the New South Wales government relaxed kangaroo culling licences, consistent with the view of the kangaroo as a “pest” that competes with livestock for survival in drought conditions. If we add this to that government’s plan to expand and intensify forest logging, it’s easy to sympathise with the kangaroo’s complaint in Pedley’s turn-of-the century fantasy.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Rarely does L.P. Hartley’s dictum that “the past is a foreign country” hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome.
Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art. Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature.
The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes), were commonly found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling us hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells happiness”).
However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. The depictions of sexuality and sexual activities in classical art seem to have had a wide variety of uses. And our interpretations of these images – often censorious in modern times – reveal much about our own attitudes to sex.
When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called “Secret Cabinet”) of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art – repression and suppression.
The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Access would be restricted to scholars, of “mature age and respected morals”. That was, male scholars only.
In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wallpaintings of the brothel was retained in situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.
Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult. John Murray’s Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain:
Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.
The cabinet was not opened to the general public until 2000 (despite protests by the Catholic Church). Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.
The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities. The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.
It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.
It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed.
These types of scenes are especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo (central panel of the cup). Hetairai (courtesans) and pornai (prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.
Painted erotica was replaced by moulded depictions in the later Greek and Roman eras, but the use must have been similar, and the association of sex with drinking is strong in this series.
The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps.
The phallus and fertility
Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the centre of much classical art.
The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing. We have already seen the phallus used in a range of domestic and commercial contexts in Pompeii, a clear reflection of its protective properties.
A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in 415 BC when the hermai of Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.
A famous fresco from the House of the Vetti in Pompeii shows Priapus, a minor deity and guardian of livestock, plants and gardens. He has a massive penis, holds a bag of coins, and has a bowl of fruit at his feet. As researcher Claudia Moser writes, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).
It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small. Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.
All representations of large penises in classical art are associated with lustfulness and foolishness. Priapus was so despised by the other gods he was thrown off Mt Olympus. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans.
Myths and sex
Classical mythology is based upon sex: myths abound with stories of incest, intermarriage, polygamy and adultery, so artistic depictions of mythology were bound to depict these sometimes explicit tales. Zeus’s cavalier attitude towards female consent within these myths (among many examples, he raped Leda in the guise of a swan and Danae while disguised as the rain) reinforced misogynistic ideas of male domination and female subservience.
The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theatre and transformation was highly sexualised, as were his followers – the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.
Satyrs were half-men, half-goats. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Indeed the word satyriasis has survived today, classified in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hypersexuality, alongside the female form, nymphomania.
The intention of the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs is clear in their appearance on vases (even if they rarely caught the maenads they were chasing); at the same time their massive erect penises are indicative of the “beastliness” and grotesque ugliness of a large penis as opposed to the classical ideal of male beauty represented by a smaller one.
Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus.
Early collectors of classical art were shocked to discover that the Greeks and Romans they so admired were earthy humans too with a range of sexual needs and desires. But in emphasising the sexual aspects of this art they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols.
Before 1914, flowers in everyday life spelt beauty, femininity and innocence; they were seen as part of women’s culture. But during the first world war, that changed. Men gathered posies of flowers on battlefields and dried them in honour of the dead, they turned to wild flowers as motifs for paintings and photographs, and they recognised in blue cornflowers and red poppies the fragility of life.
Historian Paul Fussell referred to the red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, as “an indispensable part of the symbolism” of WWI. When, on November 11, those who fought and died in WWI are commemorated, the sanguine colour of the red poppy, a flower that grew in profusion on Flanders Fields, is a vivid reminder to the living of the cost of sacrifice in war.
At the end of the conflict, artificial replicas of the Flanders poppy were sold in Allied countries to be worn in honour of the dead. Their resistance to decay became an embodiment of everlasting memory.
However, the red poppy was not always adopted without criticism. After 1933, in opposition to the symbolism of it, peace ceremonies appropriated the white poppy. Each flower expresses a different view on war: red embodies commemoration of sacrifice; white opposes political violence and remembers all war victims.
As living forms, as art, and as symbols, the wildflowers that soldiers encountered in WWI Europe help us negotiate the unimaginable enormity of war and deepen the solemnity of remembrance.
‘We are the dead’
Among the most affecting, but least talked about, Australian war paintings that officially commemorate and remember the fallen soldiers of the First World War, is George Lambert’s Gallipoli Wild Flowers (1919). Painted while Lambert served as Official War Artist, the work is unusual for the absence of soldiers’ bodies shown in action or in death. Yet it alludes to both by the inclusion of an empty slouch hat and a cluster of battlefield wildflowers. At the centre of the array of blossoms is the Flanders poppy.
The painting is a floral still-life. It exudes the melancholy of life stilled, and challenges popular conceptions that flowers are feminine, passive and beautiful. If the flowers in Lambert’s painting are beautiful, it is beauty tempered by the knowledge of human suffering. And they break with convention by relating to men, not women.
The dark centres of the poppies stare at us like the eyes of men who fought at Gallipoli. The message they communicate is the same one relayed by poppies in the lines of John McCrae’s mournful poem In Flanders Fields (1915): “we are the dead”.
Other Australian artists deployed by the Australian War Memorial tried to render the same power, and the same symbolisms, as George Lambert’s wildflower still-life, although with less intensity. Will Longstaff, for example, painted Menin Gate at midnight (1927), a monumental commemoration to men who were buried in unmarked graves on the Western Front in which the ghosts of the dead rise up among blood red poppies that grow in the same soil where their bodies decayed.
Flowers and the battlefield
On churned up war landscapes, masses of wildflowers covered derelict tanks and blanketed the ground where the dead lay, juxtaposing cold metal and the destructive power of men with the organic growth and regenerative power of nature.
Such contrasts presented Frank Hurley, Australia’s Official War Photographer working in Flanders and Palestine from August to November 1917, with many of the war’s most powerful images. Hurley could not ignore the cruel irony of all that fragile beauty growing free in the midst of industrialised warfare, mass killing, and the corpses of the dead.
Hurley’s Lighthorseman gathering poppies, Palestine (1918) is a rare colour photograph from the period. Hurley well understood the power of the poppy. He knew that for the image to become a national icon of comradeship, the flowers had to be coloured red because it is the poppy’s redness that made it the official symbol of sacrifice. Yet Hurley’s photo is pastoral, and in its vision of ideal life suggests the antithesis of war.
It may also be that flowers have a particular power over our perception. Elaine Scarry argues that the high colouration of a flower’s face is more perfect for imagining and storing images to memory than the faces of people. Official and unofficial WWI records lend support to Scarry’s theory.
When Cecil Malthus, a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli in 1915, found himself under attack, it was not the faces of the soldiers around him that he remembered, but the faces of self-sown poppies and daisies on the ground.
Over the past two decades Australian archaeologists have been slowly uncovering the World Heritage-listed ancient theatre site at Paphos in Cyprus. The Hellenistic-Roman period theatre was used for performance for over six centuries from around 300 BC to the late fourth century AD. There is also considerable evidence of activity on the site after the theatre was destroyed, particularly during the Crusader era.
The excavation of the site, and of the architectural remains in particular, is contributing significantly to our understanding of the role of theatre in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and the development of theatre architecture to reflect contemporary performance trends in the ancient world.
When we return to the site this month we will take archaeologists, surveyors, architects, specialist researchers of ancient materials, students and volunteers. We will also take contemporary artists.
As incongruous as this relationship sounds, the project is part of a wider momentum in contemporary Australian art that lauds working across disciplines. And the link between antiquity and today allows for fascinating insights to the benefit of both.
At the birth of archaeology as a discipline in the 19th century, it was a common practice to take artists on expeditions. Illustrations of exotic sites and impressive archaeological finds filled journals in Europe and the United States, such as the Illustrated London News. These reports allowed an eagerly awaiting audience to participate in the rediscovery. The rediscovery of ancient artist traditions had a profound effect on art movements of the 18th and 19th century too, from Neoclassicism to French Realism.
By the 20th century, however, archaeology as a discipline had become very focused on objective observation and detailed evidence-based analysis. Archaeological illustration became a form of technical drawing or scientific illustration, and the archaeological photograph developed clear standards for accurate recording. Any creative and emotive response to the past was pushed aside.
Recently, however, there has been something of a renewal of this relationship between the scientist and the artist. Mark Dion in 1999 used archaeological finds from London as the basis of his work Tate Thames Dig, arranging found objects in a cabinet for display.
In Australia, Ursula K. Frederick, who has a background in archaeology, explores the aesthetics of car cultures in Australia, Japan and the US. Izabela Pluta’s photographs explore ruin and place.
The responses of artists working in Paphos are often compelling, enabling ways of thinking that archaeologists had not previously considered. Media artist Brogan Bunt, for example, speaks of the irony of ephemeral digital platforms that cause what was new technology in 2006 to be unusable by 2017. For him, the ancient theatre site has maintained its identity for millennia, while digital virtual heritage is far more fragile than the places it sets out to document and preserve.
“My photographs combine visual exploration of actual sites and objects with original research into the quantum leap made by digital photography.” – Bob Miller
“I perceive the photography of sites as a memory aid, as a historical resource, as well as a reflective form of art.” – Rowan Conroy
“By mixing artistic and archaeological images we get a new grammar of looking.” – Derek Kreckler
“My research proposes a relationship between material landscapes and the immaterial and invisible spiritual, psychological and intellectual landscapes created through the artist’s gaze.” – Lawrence Wallen
“In my work I approach memories somewhat like an analyst, but perhaps more like a reflective archaeologist.” – Jacky Redgate
“Animation is for me, the physical, material perception of time.” – Hannah Gee
“The artistic motif crosses between eras, travelling back and forth in a temporal instability.” – Angela Brennan
“Drawing is a tool of thought allowing a larger framework for other meanings to emerge.” – Diana Wood Conroy
“My casting and patination process makes a connection to the narratives of archaeology.” – Penny Harris
“Digital ephemerality draws into curious relation with the loss and disappearance affecting the ancient world.” – Brogan Bunt
A cave dig in Indonesia has unearthed a unique collection of prehistoric ornaments and artworks that date back in some instances to at least 30,000 years ago. The site is thought to have been used by some of the world’s earliest cave artists.
Published today, our new findings challenge the long-held view that hunter-gatherer communities in the Pleistocene (“Ice Age”) of Southeast Asia were culturally impoverished.
They also imply that the spiritual lives of humans transformed as they encountered previously unknown species on the journey from Asia to Australia.
The human journey beyond Asia
Modern humans had colonised Australia by 50,000 years ago. It was a journey that required people crossing by boat from continental Eurasia into Wallacea, a vast swathe of island chains and atolls spanning the ocean gap between mainland Asia and Australia.
Archaeologists have long speculated about the cultural lives of the first Homo sapiens to enter Wallacea, as part of the great movement of our species out of Africa.
Some have argued that human culture in the Late Pleistocene attained a high level of complexity as Homo sapiens spread into Europe and as far east as India. Thereafter, culture is thought to have declined in sophistication as people ventured into the tropics of Southeast Asia and Wallacea.
But new research in Wallacea is steadily dismantling this view.
New findings from ‘Ice Age’ Sulawesi
In the latest addition to this rash of discoveries, we describe a suite of previously undocumented symbolic artefacts excavated from a limestone cavern on Sulawesi, the largest island in Wallacea.
The artefacts were dated using a range of methods to between 30,000 and 22,000 years ago. They include disc-shaped beads made from the tooth of a babirusa, a primitive pig found only on Sulawesi, and a “pendant” fashioned from the finger bone of a bear cuscus, a large possum-like creature also unique to Sulawesi.
Also recovered were stone tools inscribed with crosses, leaf-like motifs and other geometric patterns, the meaning of which is obscure.
Further evidence for symbolic culture was shown by the abundant traces of rock art production gleaned from the cave excavations. They include used ochre pieces, ochre stains on tools and a bone tube that may have been an “air-brush” for creating stencil art.
All are from deposits that are the same age as dated cave paintings in the surrounding limestone hills.
It is very unusual to uncover buried evidence for symbolic activity in the same places where Ice Age rock art is found. Prior to this research, it also remained uncertain whether or not the Sulawesi cave artists adorned themselves with ornaments, or even if their art extended beyond rock painting.
Early art and ornaments from Wallacea
Previous cave excavations in Timor-Leste (East Timor) have unearthed 42,000 year old shells used as “jewellery”, as reported in 2016. In 2014 archaeologists announced that cave art from Sulawesi is among the oldest surviving on the planet.
At one cave, a depiction of a human hand is at least 40,000 years old. It was made by someone pressing their palm and fingers flat against the ceiling and spraying red paint around them.
Next to the hand stencil is a painting of a babirusa that was created at least 35,400 years ago.
These artworks are compatible in age with the spectacular cave paintings of rhinos, mammoths and other animals from France and Spain, a region long thought to be the birthplace of modern artistic culture.
Some prehistorians have even suggested that the presence of 40,000-year-old art in Indonesia means that rock art probably arose in Africa well before our species set foot in Europe, although an Asian origin is also conceivable.
Based on the new evidence emerging from Timor and Sulawesi, it now appears that the story about early humans in Wallacea being less culturally advanced than people elsewhere, especially Palaeolithic Europeans, is wrong.
The weird world of Wallacea
Owing to the unique biogeography of Wallacea, the first modern humans to enter this archipelago would have encountered a strangely exotic world filled with animals and plants they had never imagined existed.
Surrounded by deep ocean troughs, the roughly 2,000 islands of Wallacea are extremely difficult for non-flying organisms to reach. Because of their inaccessibility, these islands tend to be inhabited by relatively few land mammals. Endemic lineages would have arisen on many islands as a result of this evolutionary isolation.
Sulawesi is the weirdest island of them all. Essentially all of the island’s terrestrial mammals, except for bats, occur nowhere else on earth. Sulawesi was probably where human beings first laid eyes on marsupials (cuscuses).
The discovery of ornaments manufactured from the bones and teeth of babirusas and bear cuscuses – two of Sulawesi’s most characteristic endemic species – implies that the symbolic world of the newcomers changed to incorporate these never-before-seen creatures.
Our excavations have unearthed thousands of animal bones and teeth, but only a tiny fraction are from babirusas. The near-absence of babirusas from the cave inhabitants’ diet, coupled with the portrayal of these animals in their art, and use of their body parts as “jewellery”, suggests these rare and elusive creatures had acquired particular symbolic value in Ice Age human culture.
Perhaps the first Sulawesians felt a strong spiritual connection with these odd-looking mammals.
This ‘social interaction’ with the novel species of Wallacea is likely to have been essential to the initial human colonisation of Australia with its unprecedentedly rich communities of endemic faunas and floras, including many species of megafauna that are now extinct.
In fact, elements of the complex human-animal spiritual relationships that characterise Aboriginal cultures of Australia could well have their roots in the initial passage of people through Wallacea and the first human experiences of the curious animal life in this region.