Prisoner of war
Murray Griffin was born in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern in 1903.
He attended Adwalton Preparatory School for boys and Scotch College. While studying at Scotch College his talent for drawing became clear. His parents then wanted to harness his natural ability and allowed him to leave school at the age of 15 to pursue his passion for art.
He enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1919 and studied under Bernard Hall, an English-born artist, teacher and gallery director.
While at art school, Griffin met New Zealand-born Norrie Hinemoa Grist. They married in 1932.
Occupation before war
While studying, Griffin was commissioned to design stained glass windows and art deco stone panels. In 1926, he held the first solo exhibition of his paintings at New Gallery on 107 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.
After his studies, Griffin was inspired by Austrian artist Norbertine Bresslern-Roth. His artwork involved multi-block linocut techniques that produced high-coloured images reminiscent of Japanese prints.
Griffin created landscapes, flowers and animals, becoming known for his images of birds. He won the George Crouch Memorial prize at Ballarat in 1935, judged by Louis McCubbin, for a landscape oil painting and the FE Richardson prize at the Geelong Art Gallery in 1939 for a colour print of a spoonbill.
Griffin taught art at the school Scotch College, and between 1936 and 1940, he was also the drawing master at Melbourne Technical College.
World War II
In 1941, the Australian War Memorial commissioned Griffin as an Official War Artist. He was assigned to the 8th Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and arrived in Singapore in November 1941.
After time in the Mersing area of Singapore, Griffin had already completed many art pieces in 2 months. Unfortunately, the 15 oil paintings and sketches and 10 canvasses he posted back to Australia never arrived. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
Griffin's appointment as a war artist was initially for 9 months but it was extended for 3 months. In January 1942, he moved to the Gemas-Muar sector of Singapore.
After Japanese forces invaded the Malay Peninsula, they had captured Singapore by February. Along with 15,000 Australians, Griffin became a prisoner of war (POW).
Prisoner of war
Griffin spent more than 3 years at Changi POW camp. During this time, he retained his rank as an officer, which meant he was exempt from forced labour and could continue working on his art. After his art supplies ran out, he began to improvise. He created his own colours using clay. He painted on wooden door panels, pieces of 3-ply wood and sheets of masonite from demolished buildings.
Griffin's artwork depicted everyday life in the POW camp. The daily struggles, the horrors from survivors of the Burma-Thailand railway and, later on, the inventions and improvised machinery used in the camps. In the last year of his captivity, his drawings focused more on religious and spiritual subjects.
Much of his early artwork was set against the backdrop of the beautiful Malayan scenery.
Malaya is beautiful. Rich glowing contrasts of colours, heavy massive foliage, grey twisting tree trunks curving through the air in mellow heat and stabs of brilliant colour to excite the senses.
[Vaughan Murray Griffin | Australian War Memorial (awm.gov.au)]
His painting Changi prison, early days shared an optimistic account of camp life in 1942. Of this work Griffin said:
I started to paint the life around me. Men showering under the eaves of buildings in rain - it was fresher water than in the tongs. Men doing chores, men dragging trailers loaded with camp necessities, men doing the hundred and one things prison camp required
Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war - Murray Griffin: artist in Changi | Australian War Memorial (awm.gov.au)
Griffin's artwork over time had less emotion and focused more on 'recording' life, provisions and the achievements of his fellow prisoners.
Spinning thread from hemp twine, Changi is an example of the drawings he produced in 1944 showing the inventions used in the camp. A workshop was established to make necessary items such as shoes, artificial limbs and cooking equipment.
One of his more well-known pieces of art came at the end of his time in captivity, in 1945. The Japanese guard takes a ride depicts Japanese guards riding on an improvised trailer, pulled by prisoners, to bring rations into the camp.
He completed over 230 works during his captivity. Other well-known works by Griffin as an Official War Artist:
- Got a light, Dig? (1944)
- Two men carrying basket of Ceylon Spinach, Changi (1944)
- St Andrews, Changi gaol (1945)
With the end of World War II, Griffin was liberated and repatriated to Australia in October 1945.
Life after the war
Between 1946 and 1953, Griffin went back to the National Gallery of Victoria Art School to teach drawing. He later took a position as a senior lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (now RMIT University) from 1954 to 1968.
Outside of teaching, he continued with his artwork, mainly focusing on images of birds, animals and Victorian country landscape.
Griffin died in January 1992, survived by his wife, their 2 sons and grandchildren.