The Japanese guard takes a ride: Expressions - Commemoration through Art
A printable activity sheet to help develop students' understanding of wartime artworks. Australian printmaker and painter Vaughan Murray Griffin created this artwork in 1945. In World War II, Griffin was appointed as an official war artist attached to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). After he was captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1942, he was allowed to continue his art as a prisoner of war (POW). This image depicts Australian POWs pulling a heavy cart while a Japanese guard watches on. Use the background context and inquiry questions to encourage student research and learning.
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During the Second World War, almost 31,000 Australians became prisoners of war (POWs). Many were captured when Australian and British troops on Singapore Island surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942. For those Australians captured in Singapore and in other places, their lives as POWs soon turned into a daily fight for survival. They faced disease and starvation, with many dying before the end of the war.
Murray Griffin was an official Australian war artist who went to Malaya in November 1941 with the Australian Imperial Force. After the Japanese invaded Malaya, Allied troops were forced to retreat to Singapore. When Singapore fell to the Japanese, he became a prisoner of war and was sent to the prison camp at Changi. His captors allowed for some art supplies to be taken from a storeroom. Being an officer meant he could continue to practise his art. Murray set about creating artworks that depicted life as a prisoner of the Japanese. Once the art supplies ran out, he improvised with crushing clay for colour, palette knives made in a workshop and discarded pieces of wood.
The Japanese guard takes a ride was created by Murray Griffin in 1945. It depicts Australian POWs pulling a heavy cart while a Japanese guard watches them struggle with the weighty load.
- Look carefully at the painting and describe what you see. Include all the details of the painting, even if you think they might not be significant. Keep in mind what you don’t see in the painting, as often things left out can be as important as things that are visible.
- Is the painting a primary or secondary source of historical information? What does the artwork tell us about life for Australians who ended up as prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War?
- How has Murray Griffin used the composition of the artwork to reveal the relationship between the Australian POWs and their Japanese captors? Keep in mind the use of forms, tones and the placement of figures in the artwork when responding to this question.
- Murray Griffin produced several artworks depicting life for Australian POWs in the Japanese camps. Look for other examples of artworks by him showing the experiences of Australian POWs in those camps. What do the artworks have in common in relation to his style? How would you describe his use of composition, tone, texture, perspective and form?
- Imagine you were one of the prisoners shown pulling the cart. How would you cope from day to day? What activities would you use to help you endure the suffering of being captive in a Japanese POW camp?
For more information about life as a POW, see Endurance: Stories of Australians in wartime captivity.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.