Walking through the grounds of the National Art School you are immediately struck by the history contained within its historic walls. Once a prison for convicts, became the venue for one of the most prestigious and best known art schools in Australia and the world. Some of Australia’s best known artists have spent time studying and creating within its walls. And now, this venue hosts an exhibition of works by one of Australia’s most talented and recognised established painters, Ben Quilty.
After Afghanistan is a survey of works the artist has painted upon his return from his stint as an Official War Artist deployed with troops serving in Afghanistan. These works do not depict their subjects as the romanticized digger of the past, the good natured larrikin. These works expose the effect of war on the young men and woman that serve in the armed forces, their experiences, thoughts, feelings and emotions have been transcribed in the luscious painting style Quilty is most famous for. It is interesting that the majority of the exhibition is of portraits, even the paintings of the destroyed vehicles can be considered as portraits, even if in a metaphorical sense. The two vehicle paintings “Hilux” and “Bushmaster” both depict the burnout, crumpled wrecks of armoured personnel vehicles that were employed by Australian troops.
These metaphorical paintings (“Bushmaster” above) act as a powerful visual metaphor for the destruction and carnage that a war can have. Although the portraits of the soldiers act as visual representations of the emotional and psychological impact of war, they don’t display any overt signs of physical injury. The two aforementioned works are metaphors for the physical impact of war. One can imagine if these armoured machines can be disabled with such ease then what chance does a man or woman have against contemporary weapons?
Most of the works subjects are male, there is one portrait, “Captain Kate Porter, after Afghanistan”, that depicts a young female soldier. The blurb next to the work provides the viewer with a small background and insight into the work and its subject. We are told about Captain Kate Porter, a young officer who not only fights for her country as a soldier, but represents her country as a rugby union player. The stereotypical mould is smashed, we are presented with a strong, young and healthy person. However, when we look at the portrait of her (below) we see a more vulnerable young woman. Sitting, arms crossed, naked. When we see images of soldiers they are usually kitted up in armour and weapons, we are presented with a formidable image. This work shows us just how vulnerable a person can be, and how much of an impact war has on a person. We are presented with a fleshy, tired, depressed and vulnerable person who you would initially assume was a strong, arse kicking, gun toting soldier.
The stereotype has been smashed! We now understand that she, and the other soldiers represented here in paint are human, like me or you. Except that they have assumed the greatest responsibility and have made the greatest sacrifices so that we can live here and not worry about war and terrorism coming to our shores.
Quilty’s approach to painting these works reminds us that the human subjects are that, they are human. Flesh and bone. Full of feelings, fears and anxieties. All now amplified by their experiences as Australian soldiers serving to protect Australia and its people. We are made aware of and presented with the negative impact of war, rather than the popular romantic representations of soldiers who have experienced hell.
Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan
21 February – 13 April
On display at the National Art School
Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney.