I recently visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to see Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan exhibition.
I’d previously seen photos of the paintings as well as videos of him painting some of them. I had also been to the War Memorial a few months ago to see one of the series in the Afghanistan display.
Despite that familiarity, actually seeing those paintings displayed together was even better than I expected. The photos and videos were far less powerful than the paintings in person. Seeing the texture, the colour and having the ability to view them from various distances is essential to appreciating what the images convey: the lingering effect the Afghanistan experience has had on those who were stationed there.
An unexpected bonus of the visit was found in a small room at the centre of the exhibition where a collection of simple marble sculptures, displayed on plinths, commemorated the Australian servicemen who lost their lives in Afghanistan. 41 folded flags shaped out of marble have been sculpted to commemorate each of the Australian casualties of the war.
The sculptures were so realistic that to even a very close look the flags appeared to be fabric. only a light tap with my exhibition program convinced me that they were made of stone.
While sculptor Alex Seton was setting up the first exhibition of this work in Brisbane there were 23 flags representing what was then 23 deaths, but even before that exhibition opened there was news of a 24th death – so an empty plinth was set up as a temporary completion of what was an already outdated tribute. It has since required that the number of flags be almost doubled.
Painting has been difficult over the last couple of weeks. I’ve not been happy with anything I’ve done since I finished the paintings illustrated here:
Most of my time was taken up painting the one below, to which I’ve given the title “Prophet”. But I’m not happy with it. I quite like the colour and texture of the face, but not the features. Around the face I’ve included stencilled phrases from scripture, but I’m not happy with those I chose to include. They give the impression that the face represents Jesus Himself – but that was never the intention.
(this was photographed at an angle to catch the light on the stencilled words – the shape of the face therefore appears a little distorted.)
Until I decide what to do next, I’ll put this one aside and start to try something different.
I think the attempt at a portrait came about because I’ve recently seen a couple of documentaries about Ben Quilty, a young Australian artist who recently had a short stint as a war artist in Afghanistan. I’d seen him previously in some tributes to the late Margaret Olley whose portrait he had painted, winning him the Archibald Prize.
Quilty isn’t known for delicate and detailed work. He makes a lot of use of pallet knives to apply thick layers of paint squeezed not from tubes but from large cartridges more like a building product than an artist’s material. Even though he applies paint like a bricklayer applies mortar, the results have a detail capturing much more than the physical appearance of his subject. He somehow manages to capture their heart, their thoughts and their emotions.
My own attempts at portraiture have a long way to go – but I’ll keep returning and giving it another go. One day I’ll get it right (I hope).
See this excellent article about Quilty