During World War I over 60,000 Australian soldiers lost their lives on the Western Front in Europe. Now, 100 years later, the site is no longer a scene of carnage. Instead the Western Front is a serene, pastoral-like landscape of crops, fields, forests and villages. This stark contrast between place and time is being explored in the regional touring exhibition Salient: Contemporary artists at the Western Front.
Currently showing at the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM), Salient brings together 12 Australian artists who each spent time at the Western Front in 2017. The artists created works that responded to war sites, primarily in France and Belgium, and the effects the war had on Australian communities and culture.
As Robert Heather, director of NERAM, explains, Salient ultimately grew out of the artists having to negotiate the divide between the late 1910s and today. “Now, of course, these tragic sites are beautiful farmlands and picturesque agricultural scenes with the occasional monument, memorial and cemetery,” he says. “But there are also sites there where you can see trenches and craters and some remnants of the battlefield. The artists were struck with that contrast of the terror 100 years ago, and how serene it looks today.”
Produced in collaboration with King Street Gallery, Salient features a variety of mediums including sculptures by Ian Marr and Harrie Fasher, photographs by Paul Ferman and watercolours by Deirdre Bean. The show further displays many of the artists’ journals, diaries and sketchbooks from their site visits.
In particular, Heather mentions the work of Ross Laurie. “He found it quite a disturbing thing and his work is normally quite abstract, and yet for this show he has done landscapes which is very rare for him,” says the director. “They’re battle scenes with bunkers and trenches and barbed wire and things, and he was going back to old historical photographs and finding information and then relating it to the sites he actually visited.”
Considering that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Heather hopes Salient allows viewers to reflect on tragedies of the Western Front and their impact today. “World War I was a great catastrophe for Europe, but it was also a great catastrophe for Australia at the time,” he says. “So every single town, every single village, every single city in Australia was quite effected by what happened over 100 years ago.”
Bathurst Regional Art Gallery
10 August – 7 October
Anzac Memorial, Sydney
22 October 2018 – 17 February 2019
Bank Art Museum Moree
5 March – 29 April 2019
Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre
11 May – 30 June 2019
Tweed Regional Gallery
21 November 2019 – 16 February 2020