Women Artists and the Representation of the First World War
Speck, Catherine, Journal of Australian Studies
The tradition of male artists `going to war' to represent key events of nation is well established. A stroll through the Australian War Memorial(1) in Canberra confirms that a number of well-known artists were employed in an official capacity during the first and second world wars to record their nation in conflict. Official war artists such as Will Dyson, Arthur Streeton, George Lambert, Will Dargie, Ivor Hele and Sali Hermann have, in their paintings and drawings, shaped the representation of nation and the role of its citizens during both wars.(2) In works such as George Lambert's The Road to Jericho (1918) and Ivor Hele's Study for the Disembarkation from Greece (1941) the landscape and men engage in some form of implied action, as Ian Bum has so eloquently established.(3) Out of this a defining characteristic of the nation emerges. Is there a place, then, for women in this doubly masculine-constructed culture of `war' seen through the eyes of the `war artist'? A number of Australian women have worked as war artists, but in the first world war it was in an unofficial capacity. This article focuses on women and their visual responses to the events they experienced.
War is a regrettable state for any nation to be confronted with; nevertheless participation in its events is considered the highest act of citizenship, and one open only to citizens whose domain is the public sphere. A long tradition of philosophical thought underpins this differential construction of citizenship, which sees men operating in the public realm and women in the private realm.(4)
When the Australian government came, somewhat belatedly, to appoint official artists it was not the women artists who were resident in England or France to whom the commissions went, but to the expatriate male artists.(5) In August 1916 the official war art scheme was launched by Will Dyson who, in a spirit of patriotism, offered his services to Australia as a war artist. After much bureaucratic shuffling between the Australian High Commission and the British War Office, permission was finally granted in December 1916 for Dyson to spend extended periods of time at the front in France.
The usual complaints were made about the calibre of those few appointed, with expatriate artists in London querying both the low number and the quality of appointees. Dyson was not paid initially, but later at one pound per day. Arthur Streeton proposed his own list of eligible appointees, including a woman: Mrs Coates, who is better known as Dora Meeson.(6) There were a number of women in England and France, including Thea Proctor, Hilda Rix, Bessie Davidson, Jessie Traill and Rose MacPherson (Margaret Preston). They were overseas because this was an era when many women travelled to the perceived centres of culture with the aim of `finishing their education in London or Paris, their object being to get into salons or the Royal Academy'.(7) However, the lack of official consideration given to the possibility of appointing any of these women betrays a deeper gendered division of labour of artists in wartime. Male artists who received appointment joined the AIF, but there was no corresponding women's service to which women artists could be attached. This was enough to preclude women as artists of war.
Dyson maintained that his drawings of `Australian soldiers ... would be suggested ... by personal contact' with `our men in their European settings'.(8) He believed that artists actually needed to experience trench warfare, as Gavin Fry and Anne Gray have pointed out:
The most important feature of the commissioning programme was that the artists were able to experience at first hand the conditions and atmosphere of front line warfare. It was believed that only through personal contact with the men and an intimate knowledge of the devastation of the battlefield could the artists paint convincingly of the war.(9)
In effect, this meant that there was no place for the legitimate or official representation of these events by Australian women. …