Learning about wartime art and Australian artists


Wartime artwork throughout history has been used to document and share the humanity and the inhumanity of war. Since World War I, more than 70 official war artists have been appointed by the Australian Army or the Australian War Memorial. The Royal Australian Navy also appoints naval artists and the Royal Australian Air Force appoints aviation artists. The role of these official artists has been to record to activities of Australian defence personnel during wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. Other Australian artists have highlighted the experiences of people back home, expressing the impact of wartime service on civilians and society.

Official war artists

Works by war artists are commissioned to illustrate and record different aspects of service, including an individual's experience, whether that be allied or enemy, service or civilian, military or political, social or cultural.

The role of the artist is to embrace all aspects of a conflict or mission. And their artworks serve both educational and historical purposes, as well as commemorating those who have served.

Starting during World War I, the Official War Art Scheme is one of the largest commissioned programs of art in Australia. The Australian War Memorial commissions official war artists to deploy along with the Australian armed forces, to continue the role of artwork in interpreting Australia's wartime history for future generations.

The works produced include a diverse range of imagery, style and perceptions of conflict and peacekeeping. Throughout the years since World War I, the artists commissioned have had varying skills, styles, interests and approaches to their artworks. Many were established career artists with years of experience.

The scheme plays an important role in commemorating and recording Australia's involvement in modern conflicts and operations.

Learn more about:

Official naval artists

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN), formed in 1911, appoints or commissions naval artists. These are artists who hone their skills in marine subject matter, such as boats, ships and submarines.

Marine artist Arthur James Wetherall Burgess was born in 1879 in Bombala, south-eastern New South Wales. In 1913, he was commissioned to paint the Royal Australian Navy fleet entering Sydney Harbour for the first time. Then in 1918, he was appointed Official Naval Artist to Australia. His role was to document the Navy's activities in World War I. In 1918, Burgess painted HMS 'Mersey' and HMS 'Severn' Firing on SMS 'Koenigsberg', depicting a naval action in German East Africa that included HMAS Pioneer. He also captured the Navy's flagship HMAS Australia.

Maritime artist Robert Torrens 'Bob' McRae of Wollongong, New South Wales, has been painting ships since the 1990s. In 2008, Bob was appointed Official Artist for the RAN Naval History Unit in the Iraq War. His role was to draw, paint and photograph naval activities. Most of the time, he was working aboard HMAS Arunta during patrols near Iraq.

Listen to an interview with Bob McRae.

HMAS Australia at the surrender of the German fleet in the Firth of Forth, undated, Arthur James Wetherall Burgess, oil on linen, 167.2 cm x 259.2 cm x 13 cm frame. Australian War Memorial collection ART00192.

Official aviation artists

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), formed in 1921, appoints its own aviation artists. These artists are skilled in aviation subject matter, such as aeroplanes and helicopters.

For example, New Zealand-born artist, Frank Norton, was appointed official war artist with the RAN and the RAAF during World War II, and later appointed as an official war artist in the Korean War.

Man in military uniform and beret holding 3 paintbrushes and painting on a small canvas showing servicemen and aircraft

Official war artist Frank Norton working at No 3 Squadron RAAF base in Antelat, Libya, during World War II, 14 January 1943. AWM 023242

Female artists in wartime

Australia didn't commission any females as official war artists in World War I. However, many aspects of life in this period were captured by women who worked independently. Well-known artists whose work includes wartime subjects include:

Rix was a widow in World War I who painted several noted works that focused on the ruin and grief of war. While Rae was living in the French coastal town of Étaples, she produced 200 pastel drawings as she worked in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) of the British Red Cross.

Important works by female artists during World War I led the Australian War Memorial to appoint its first female official war artist during World War II, Nora Heysen.

I was commissioned to depict the women’s war effort. So I was lent around to all the Services; the air force, the navy and the army, to depict the women working at everything they did

[Fifty Australians - Nora Heysen]

Expressions: Commemoration through art

This series of teaching resources aims to develop students' understanding of Australia’s military history through art.

Students explore artwork through an inquiry-based learning activity included with each resource.

Subjects: Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS), History, Visual Arts

Years: 5 to 6, 7 to 8, 9 to 10

The Sock Knitter

Painted during World War I by Grace Cossington Smith.

Incident In Which Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton [VC] Lost His Life

Painted during World War II by British artist David Smith, depicting an Australian pilot, Rawdon Hume 'Ron' Hume.

Wounded Gunner from Lae

Painted during World War II by Australian artist Roy Hodgkinson, depicting Australian aircrew helping a wounded gunner from his aircraft.

Two working men, Konyu River Camp

Sketched during World War II by British artist, soldier and prisoner of war Jack Bridger Chalker, depicting allied prisoners of war.

The Japanese guard takes a ride

Painted during World War II by Australian artist and prisoner of war Vaughan Murray Griffin, depicting Australians pulling a heavy cart.

Long Tan action, Vietnam

Painted during the Vietnam War by Australian artist Bruce Fletcher, depicting a battle in a rubber plantation.

Operation Overlord

Photographed during the Vietnam War by Australian photographer John Alfred Ford, depicting a tank squadron in the jungle.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Learning about wartime art and Australian artists, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 8 December 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/education/theme/wartime-art
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