The assumption of ANZAC as the foundation of conservative Australia has been used to mobilise popular sentiment into dubious alliances in wars of questionable purpose. In this context, Rodney Pople’s latest exhibition, Shell Shocked, has urgency. His paintings are a vehicle for questioning more than a century of myth-making.
In Australia, the stories of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and certain aspects of the country’s involvement in WW1, form one of the central components of Australia’s national identity.
We take the ANZAC story very seriously.
We police how that story is told: laws exist that limit how commerce can associate itself with ANZAC and how and where the acronym can be used. Beyond the law, anyone who publicly questions the ANZAC mythology in the media is literally shouted down, and then excluded.
Prominent Australian artist Rodney Pople in his latest exhibition Shell Shocked, has cast his eye across the ANZAC story and found a history of untruths, a selective telling that adheres to the dominant national narrative.
It is a narrative where Australia finds itself at war, not because of invasion but out of loyalty to the mother country, then defeated and in retreat from Gallipoli, but eventually victorious as part of the allied effort.
Despite the disaster, this is also where the fundamental elements of Australian masculinity are said to be forged – the qualities of resilience, fortitude, and mateship.
For Pople, the story is also a calamity, first in the reality of the savagery of warfare, but also in the absurd and politically opportune revision of the ANZAC experience into a strict conservative orthodoxy.
Where most artists, official Australian war artists and others, have approached the story with deference and respect, Pople has taken a different route, creating what is in essence an alternative history.
Pople’s Shell Shocked takes place within a variety of settings, from fragmentary and ghostly landscapes as if conjured from collective memory, to the galleries of art museums, and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Like much of Pople’s previous work, there is a dark streak of satire in the major paintings and smaller companion works.
Where the artist has previously taken on subjects such as class, art history and disturbing contemporary events such as the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, with a frank and uncensored approach, here too the ANZAC legend is portrayed in part in an often-profane sequence of images.
The subservience of Australian troops to imperial British command is rendered as a series of sexual acts such as in Churchill in the Bath Gallipoli 1915 where the architect of the allied defeat is fellated by a solider, or in War Memorial 3 where an orgy takes place in the Australian War Memorial’s outside gallery of remembrance atop the plinth of a war memorial.
Elsewhere, ‘great men’ – leaders and generals – are treated with disdain, a mockery of position, privilege and their ultimate unaccountability for the atrocity of WW1.
Sick of the glorification of war that followed the conflict’s recent 100th anniversary, Pople uses the rudeness of these images to overturn the absurd cant of the ANZAC mythology, and to humanise the story, both for the people who were there, and for the audience of these confronting images.
The way in which these works were produced marks an interesting departure.
Although he is not a painter who habitually makes expressionless realist pictures, Pople’s paintings have tended to feature ‘finished’ surfaces that create a push-pull between their illusionistic quality and livelier, painterly surfaces.
In Shell Shocked, Pople has foregrounded a much-reduced approach, akin to drawing, working with oil, and tempera, either on linen or plywood.
War Hero and Welcome Home are the connective links to his previous paintings, their dark backgrounds serving to focus attention on foreground subjects.
But other works reject this approach, paintings such as in General or Poet, Hamilton at Gallipoli which isolates its central figure by painting in around the rider and horse, but the picture falling away into a sketchier incompleteness at its edges.
Pople is an exceptionally literate painter, often quoting or appropriating elements of other artist’s work for his own.
In this series, he has drawn on contemporary artists including Anselm, particularly the German artist’s recurring motif of battleships, here used by Pople as devices to literally punctuate the already marginal sense of painterly realism, such as the ship crashing through a wall in War Memorial 1, the aircraft buzzing through the War Heroes Memorial and the ambulance in War Memorial 3.
The treatment of figures, the spidery text and absurd sex acts in the images also recall the work of Chilean-Australian painter Juan Davila, while the influence of British painter Francis Bacon can be found in a variety of ways, notably in Pople’s use of light.
The legacy of Sidney Nolan, a painter of war images but never officially a ‘war artist’, hangs over these works too – his presence quoted in the background figures and rider in Returned Soldier.
But despite this range of references, these works remain Pople’s own, their acerbic humour, and frank despair, trademarks of the artist’s worldview.
Pople is of the belief that it is the role of the artist to question things.
It’s not enough to produce pleasant images, or to even take on serious subjects if their treatment aligns to easy public sentiment. At a time when art struggles to find relevance in the contemporary world, individual genres within painting seem virtually exhausted. Pople asks, “what is the point of painting the landscape?” And indeed, what is the use of speaking if you’re not speaking the truth?
Internationally, many artists and writers, filmmakers and playwrights have produced stunning indictments of conflict, yet Australia’s visual legacy of anti-war sentiment has remained slim.
One of the best-known popular works on WW1 is Peter Weir’s celebrated film Gallipoli , a virtual hagiography of the ANZAC myth, where the sacrifice of individuals rests, ultimately, on a sense of duty to mateship, even before country, or cause.
While I feel some sympathy for that view, the assumption of ANZAC as the foundation of conservative Australia over the last two decades has been used to mobilise popular sentiment into dubious alliances in wars of questionable purpose, all of this happening while the push to recognise Australia’s historical wars against its own Indigenous people has been treated as a fringe political cause. In this context Shell Shocked has real urgency, Pople’s paintings a vehicle for a sincere questioning of more than a century of myth making.
Theorist Tom Nairn describes nationalism as the “pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as neurosis in the individual” with each country sharing a “capacity for a descent into dementia”.
The streets of my neighbourhood are enduring another record summer, the hot tarmac of Lone Pine Avenue almost a liquid, rivulets of tar softening and running into the gutters, rather like the pitch black of Rodney Pople’s paintings.
I know I can’t be the first to wonder if Australia will ever wake up from its shared dream of an imagined, illusory nationhood and accept an honest reappraisal of its history, but the reminder that this is long overdue is always valuable.
Dr Andrew Frost is a writer, art critic and documentary maker. Since 2004 he has been the editor of The Art Life, and since 2013 the art critic for Guardian Australia.