A Soldier's Mirror

The depiction of war and military combat within contemporary art can put on the table what most soldiers will not put in front of their families. This art genre has the potential to give a profound yet complex reflection of life at war. While there are many social, cultural and political reasons that restrict us from dealing with our experiences or ideas of war, artworks about war allow the public to have an empathetic engagement with the soldier’s experience, and to look into a mirror of their trauma or struggle. This mirror is not distorted by media generated misconceptions of war, or glamourised to create public approval, but rather it strips back the popular portrayal of war. Art possesses the capacity to humanise war by creating relationships that are not normally acknowledged, between the soldier and audience. 

Ben Quilty is one war artist who has ‘humanised’ war in his works. He has successfully stripped back the ideals and glorified imagery of the bravery, the medals, the alliance to one’s country, the nobility of a soldier, and has left a man in a camouflage suit, with only his nightmares, antagonism and qualms. Ben Quilty was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial in 2011 to paint soldiers in Afghanistan. The resulting exhibition ‘After Afghanistan’, which toured Australia, and was featured at the Tweed River Art Gallery, gives a disturbingly raw insight into the mental trauma of soldiers, and underlines the importance of sending artists into war zones. Artworks shown in the exhibition, including Captain S after Afghanistan (2011), give a first hand illustration of what the soldiers experienced in Afghanistan. 

Society does not always recognise how difficult life for a soldier is post Afghanistan, because they do not walk around with a badge that reads ‘I’m doing it tough’ (Captain S, 2011). However war artists such as Ben Quilty act as that badge, and provide a sense of agency in conveying to the community how tough they are actually doing it. While concurrently allowing the memory of the soldiers to be set down or accounted for without verbal or written communication, it preserves a memory that many people have never been exposed to. A memory that is often not considered in this particular light. 

Unlike journalists and war photographers, who sensationalise the concept of war and whose work merely aims to construct a perfect shot wanted by publishers, artists have the responsibility of insight; therefore, they are able to give a reflection of life at war. Artists have a responsibility to show that the body language and valour of the man who appears on war propaganda created by the Australian media, the glorified version of a soldier, which popular culture accepts, is opposed by the body language, as shown in Quilty’s work, and is opposed to the traumas that the soldiers face. Flaccid, exhausted, fatigued and scared bodies cover canvases fuelled with experience, such as Captain S After Afghanistan (2011), whose choice of position, uncommon for a war portrait due to the subject’s nudity and yielding position, was a direct reproduction of an experience that he shared when in combat in Afghanistan. 

The pose for this painting reflects a memorable and terrifying experience Captain S had as an officer. Under constant fire from insurgents in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, he spent eighteen hours taking cover behind a low mud-brick wall. Captain S not only commanded aircraft gunfire, he also coordinated the landing of the medical helicopter in order to evacuate a seriously wounded young soldier… while remaining in this position (Art Gallery New South Wales, 2012).

These paintings act as a form of communication between the unspeakable nightmares and experiences of the soldiers and the audience. War artists like Quilty, offer a counter narrative to the glorified accounts or propaganda of war that often are targeted at the general public. Quilty acts to expose the experiences of war. He is able to emphasise the importance of his subjects through his thick, explosive and rough style of painting which emphasises, not only the masculinity of the subjects, but also their fragility, and enables the viewer to develop an understanding of the individuality of that soldier, and not a manifestation of media sanctioned imagery. 

Emanuel Leutze’s painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), is an example of how society has been misguided by the traumas faced by soldiers in combat. Washington appears resolute, resilient and principled, yet the interpreter is left without an insight into his mentality, and the traumas within. Similarly, Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field (1865), only offers hints of the veteran’s experiences at war and requires the audience to question whether he is proud of his battles at war or whether he is tormented by his experiences (Dirk Breiding, 2013). Quilty’s work allows the viewer to interpret some of the horrors that soldiers have experienced without having to over-analyse small hints presented by the artist, that many viewers may fail to acknowledge. For example, The Veteran in a New Field only shows that the veteran was a soldier through the canteen on the bottom right and his discarded jacket. Quilty, however, makes very clear the significance of the suffering that these soldiers have faced though his use of positioning, thick imperative brush strokes and desire to express internal emotions. 

The exhibition, After Afghanistan has successfully acted in rekindling the relationship between the Australian society and the true underlying sentiment of the Afghanistan veterans. Historically, society has been starved of the substance of Australian war veterans; we have been starved of their involvements, which are crucial if society is to understand the underlying darkness of combat. Quilty is one artist who is spoon feeding us a necessary greater understanding of these soldiers and their traumas. Spoon feeding us whole livelihoods of emotions. 

Ben Quilty, Captain S after Afghanistan, 2012. Oil on linen, 210 x 230cm. Courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane. 

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Oil on canvas, 378.5  x  647.7cm. Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. Oil on canvas, 61.3 x 96.8cm. Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 


Dirk Breiding, War and Conflict, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. Retrieved 2 October 2013, http://www.metmuseum.org/connections/war_and_conflict#/Feature/
Art Gallery New South Wales, Ben Quilty, 2012. Retrieved 16 October 2013, from Art Gallery New South Wales: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/2012/29238/
Captain S, ‘Australian Story’, ABC, 3 September 2012. Retrieved 30 September 2013. See http://www.abc.net.au/austory/content/2012/s3581736.htm