For the past several years, conversations amongst the National Portrait Gallery’s senior staff have explored how the Gallery would acknowledge the Anzac Centenary within the centennial commemoration of the First World War. Perhaps the NPG could tell individual stories of those who experienced conflict? Perhaps it could commission contemporary video portraits to speak of the ongoing impact of war? The NPG received proposals from artists and curators, reflecting the strong interest in the ongoing humanist story of the First World War and Australia.
In late 2013, the Gallery’s contribution to the Anzac Centenary crystallised around the theme of sacrifice and the Australian home-front. The exhibition All that fall: Sacrifice, life and loss in the First World War would offer a portrayal of absent bodies to evoke the tragedy of lost lives.
Our title was inspired by the sentiment of Psalm 145: The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down; and by the aural atmosphere of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s radio play of the same name; a reflection on loss, suffering and the absurdity of the human condition. Beckett’s play stimulated for us the desire to create an immersive exhibition experience, and the concept of a soundscape for the exhibition was a key element. In collaborating on the exhibition Inner Worlds: Portraits & Psychology in 2011 we had found that exhibition had enabled an emotional and psychological space that allowed the validation of people’s feelings and experiences of psychological trauma. We sought to open up a similarly free psychological space with All that fall.
We wanted to encourage reflection and contemplation, with carefully chosen historical images and objects placed alongside contemporary artistic works specially commissioned for the exhibition. With the expertise of our exhibition designer Tim Moore, we aimed for an exhibition experience that was dramatic, immersive and in the end, expansive.
An iconic image for the exhibition, early in its inception, was the maquette for a sculpture never made, by British-born Australian artist Rayner Hoff. His Crucifixion of Civilisation 1914 1932 was to be part of his commissioned work for the Sydney Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. Hoff had fought with the British Army in the trenches in France before coming to Australia. The allegorical sculpture shows Peace crucified on the standard of war god, Mars. The sculpture was controversial for its depiction of a female figure crucified. The large maquette was kept in storage into the 1960s, and then lost. We decided to revive this sculpture by reproducing it at an imagined life-size had it been completed. Reproduced at large-scale from a half-tone image by an unknown photographer in Art in Australia journal, October 1932, Hoff’s memorial is revivified.
We were similarly inspired to breathe life into another proposed memorial to war. Uncompleted for lack of funds, Australian sculptor Theodora Cowan’s proposed memorial was to be a dedication to fallen soldiers from the women of New South Wales. Cowan’s maquette for the sculpture shows the dying Anzac lying in the arms of Death, with female Destiny nursing a baby, a young boy representing Love and the Angel of Immortality holding aloft a torch. This image shows Cowan’s maquette To our glorious dead – For the national life 1921. We contemplated recreating the sculpture, and settled on inviting a contemporary artist, Ellis Hutch, to make an artistic response to it. Hutch created a poetic and allusive installation work from panels of cast wax, across which shifting light reveals the form of angelic wings – like those of the Angel of Immortality in Cowan’s maquette.
The development of this exhibition has nurtured an evolutionary process of ideas. Initially, we commissioned artist Lee Grant to document forlorn memorials to the First World War, in country towns around Canberra. Upon exploring the brief, Grant found that she was strongly affected by the quality of the empty, wintry landscape and its powerful evocation of loss. Three images were selected for the exhibition, placed in an open space in dialogue with Ellis Hutch’s glowing wax installation. Grant’s landscape photographs, devoid of figures, symbolise the absence of all those, non-returned, their graves far from home.
The idea of a soundscape that would rest gently in the exhibition was an expression of the desired psychological space that underlies the curatorial and creative formation of the exhibition. We imagined a soundscape rather than a musical score or composition of sound-effects – atmospheric as Beckett’s was. Perhaps barely audible at all, adding a softening and enveloping tone to the exhibition experience. Being familiar with sound artist Lawrence English’s ambient and finely-calibrated works, we were pleased when he accepted our invitation. English has created a discreet sound installation titled Ricochet, incorporating spoken names of the 11th Battalion, the first to fall at Gallipoli; and an immersive soundscape that tints the overall exhibition space with an evocative palette of tonal chords and soft audio textures.
The exhibition doesn’t focus on individual biographies – those stories that connect to particular individuals are told through objects that are both deeply personal and broadly symbolic of loss. The female relative’s badge – to indicate kin who had served – was presented to Mrs Caroline McGillivray whose sons Archibald, William, John and Alfred McGillivray survived active service. Her son James was killed at Gallipoli in 1915 and son Andrew (not represented on the badge) was deemed medically unfit from gas and wounding at Messines, Belgium. Mrs McGillivray contracted influenza and died in 1919, before her surviving sons had returned home.
The living, breathing body is present in a series of video portraits produced in collaboration with the Queensland Theatre Company. Actors from the theatre production Black Diggers portray returned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen, expressing their indignation at the historical denial of their service and entitlements, and their return to a country that did not recognise them as citizens.
Each of these elements, along with dramatically-enlarged recruitment posters targeting young men and mothers alike, leaflets designed to heighten emotional responses to conscription, satirical cartoons, and commemorative crochet and medallions sit within the exhibition space. Physically they occupy different registers – large-scale digital reproductions, original drawings, intimately-scaled artefacts, and contemporary multimedia works of art. Suspended here together they are each also deeply symbolic of absence and loss, resonating together.
All that fall
Sacrifice, life and loss in the First World War
Focussing on the wide-ranging theme of loss and absence, this exhibition provides a moving ‘portrait’ of loss during the First World War on the Australian home front. Powerful symbolic images, including contemporary works, evoke the emotional intensity of loss. All that fall: Sacrifice, life and loss in the First World War is the National Portrait Gallery’s contribution to the Anzac Centenary.