In the Ukraine, the world stands on the abyss. How can we who live elsewhere understand the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fight to defend their country and all democracy against Putin’s heinous, criminal tyranny? Can art illuminate it?
An Australian phenomenon that ensures our remembrance of such individuals is the ‘Avenue of Honour’; ranks of trees that line the main roads of 547 of our towns, most of them here in Victoria. To drive through these magnificent tunnels of now mature arching trees, all of the same age and regimented in their placement, whether dense with leaf in summer or skeletal in winter, is to be conscious of their memorial purpose.
They are intended to salute the service, and in so many cases the deaths, of those who volunteered in the Second Boer War and in the First World War. Artists have been moved to replicate the experience.
Trent Parke in 2014 showed his Avenue of Honour in the international exhibition The First World War in Bruges to mark 100 years since the German army’s invasion of the city, with the work commissioned by the Australian National War Memorial and shown there also in 2016, and in Ballarat, home of the avenue which was his subject, at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, 24 December 2020 to 14 March 2021.
Earlier, Janenne Eaton showed The Avenue of Honour – anatomy of a monument at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne in 1995; at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, 2007; and ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra in 2008. Her Avenue of Honour recreated that at Bacchus Marsh. In an arduous act of devotion she made a rubbing of the surface texture of each tree and its nameplate then transferred the frottage onto a tall banner on the other side of which was her image of the whole tree hand-copied from her photograph of it. The translucent banners were hung in lines from the ceiling, with each of the two hundred and eighty one ‘trees’ ordered as they are in the actual Avenue. Viewers could weave their way between the trees as well as proceed down the avenue.
Ballarat’s is the most extensive such avenue at 22 kilometres which is lined with 3,912 trees, while in Bacchus Marsh the 281 Dutch elms were planted simultaneously at the call of a bugle. These soldiers often enlisted together, and fought beside their townsfolk. Consequently, the youth of many a country hamlet or village was wiped out or decimated in a defeat. Their corpses remain un-repatriated purportedly because of the impracticality at the time of transporting decaying remains from battlefields on the other side of the globe. There were no body bags. The Commonwealth Government of the day determined that Australian soldiers were volunteers (Australians had voted down two conscription referendums in 1916 and 1917), and therefore decreed it was not obliged to repatriate the dead. Communities desperate for some lasting way of honouring their brave children, parents and friends and memorialising the missing and the maimed struck upon the idea of planting a tree for each of them.
The Argus in 1922 explained;
“Monuments of bronze or stone, architectural designs, or imposing buildings may serve as memorials in a collective sense; but the avenue of honour in which each tree commemorates a soldier, introduces a living breathing individuality.”
In our time the monument has become a vexed symbol; socially and politically inflammatory, so that in America bronze and stone figures of Civil War soldiers have been graffitied and torn down and in the UK likewise statues of the colonialists have been defaced or destroyed.
Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument was first published in 1976 and several of his subjects have now vanished from the site of his street photography; The Albert Pike Memorial in Washington, D.C. (below) seems to join the pedestrians in their hurry in Friedlander’s 1972 photograph. It honoured a senior officer of the Confederate States Army so was toppled and burned by protesters in June 2020, in protest of the murder of George Floyd. In the Ukraine on 26 April 2022 a massive Soviet-era bronze monument symbolising the friendship between Russia and Ukraine was torn down.
Stone and bronze statues there are here too. In addition to Australia’s living avenue memorials are 65 soldier monuments in regional Victorian communities and a few in Melbourne suburbs. Cenotaphs made in Australia were affordable to small communities at a cost of £450 (worth $41,520.00 today). Larger monuments (with up to 300 names to be inscribed) often incorporated Italian marble imports.
A century after the installation, do we even look at these figures, except on Anzac Day? These sentinels stand silent as attitudes to war, memorials and commemoration fluctuate. Sited prominently near a post office or major intersection, several were relocated because they became traffic hazards. Can they be humanised so that their commemorative nature might be restored?
Clayton Tremlett identifies himself not as a photographer but as an artist-printmaker. An art teacher, he also has a background in cleaning, restoring and relocating historic monuments and fountains. That experience is behind his unique and arduous project; Immortals.
During his conservation of an historic statue or monument he worked with it in intimate contact. That revealed insights into their material history and the sculptors’ methods. By contrast the casual passerby notes, if anything, only the impression of an imposing historical figure who is being commemorated. So often they are some now-forgotten municipal or state worthy whose image has been mounted high on a pedestal where it remains for decades, the roost for pigeons or the object of some prankster’s efforts at decoration.
The result of five years of painstaking research, Tremlett’s Immortals allows us to look into the faces of Victoria’s ‘Digger’ memorials, to see them as portraits of real individuals. This comparative visual analysis has not been attempted before and it entailed travel across the state to document each monument, and every one presented challenges.
Most face the rising sun, which is the symbol on the so-called ‘Rising Sun’ brass insignia, first issued to Australian soldiers in 1902 and worn on the up-turned brim of a slouch hat which symbolised the ANZAC camaraderie of Australian and New Zealand soldiers fighting for the Crown and the British Empire. Tremlett therefore had to be on site at sunrise as early morning light warmed the face and the badge on each Digger’s hat.
Adhering to a comparative methodology, Tremlett photographed each monument’s face from the same angle and scale regardless of the proportions of the original. That frequently entailed shooting from the top of a step-ladder in the middle of the road.
Counterintuitively, he resorted to a 15-year-old, 2006 model camera; the 6 megapixel Panasonic DMC-FZ7 with a live-view 6.35cm screen. He valued its 36 – 432 mm zoom that magnified the subject x12, and its backlight setting which provided the shadow detail he needed. Its low resolution further simplifies the image. From 80-120 shots of each statue from this well-worn camera, the best digital images were selected for highlights and shadows. Then, using the Threshold facility in Photoshop, five separations were made, which were exposed on photo-stencils and transferred onto silk-screens to print with painstaking registration in ink layered progressively from light grey to black.
Why did he not just present the photographs as did Lee Friedlander in his similar project, and why this low-tech approach that would leave most photographers aghast? Tremlett’s aim was to produce an image characteristic of a toned black-and-white WW1 studio portrait but to make each identical in aspect and tonality regardless of whether the sculpture was stone or bronze, of where they were located, how they were lit, or whether they are in good or neglected condition.
Thus they can be directly compared, belying the common misconception that the Digger memorials were mass produced, because their individual, distinctive features are isolated and emphasised, even between those few that are duplicates. The result is a merging of the qualities of photograph and screen print; realist but hand-made, and repeated for 65 faces.
We see through the generic forms of this very specialised genre to distinguish broken noses, eroded ears, lichen encrustations, bird droppings or rain-fissured faces that mirror the injuries of war suffered by individuals. As Tremlett explains;
“The series invites us to engage in a cultural conversation about the nation that created these monuments and their significance today … While they reflect a broader sense of mourning and symbolism, each figure has individual characteristics. Several depict the Digger as courageous, stoic or determined, others present an image of doubt, regret and despair. Some are boys, some are men and some are women. Viewed together, the portraits evoke an overwhelming sense of empathy.
Of course these pictures are neither portraits in any literal sense and nor they are photographs, and that is a key to their fascination. They come from the conventions of the monumental mason, and in more subtle cases, the re-imagination of an artist-sculptor. Tremlett’s printmaking conversion remakes the original digital photograph in five graded inks the consistency of blood. Visible layers abbreviate the tonal range of daylight on modelled stone or bronze to infuse the faces with a living warmth. The icon, in a Pygmalion metamorphosis before the eyes of the beholder, becomes human.
The exhibition is being held in the new gallery space at the Bendigo RSL and in it three elements interact. The prints, all of the same format, are ranked along the walls. The initial impression is like that of seeing uniformed soldiers on parade where they all look the same, except to their watching relatives.
Dominant on the end wall, like an altarpiece, is an enlarged contemporary photograph of the 1921 dedication of one of the cenotaphs made by August Reitman (1877-1951) for Bonnie Doon. In it, as Major Bushell salutes and a crowd looks on, a little boy turns out of the frame, his solemn face a younger version of the man in the print on the adjoining wall.
According to the Argus report of 13th September 1921:
“The monument, which cost about £700 (subscribed by residents) [in today’s value A$50,000] consists of a column of polished granite, on which are inscribed in golden letters the names of 18 men who fell in the war, and 51 men and two nurses who returned after service. Surmounting the column, there is a life size representation of an Australian soldier.”
At the centre of the gallery on a black plinth lies one of the memorials; a sombre presence, the fallen soldier is the statue from Korong Vale, now almost a ghost town. A sequence of felicitous circumstances enabled Tremlett to retrieve this relic from Joe Pratt whom he knew at Harcourt who was creating a replacement for it. It had been damaged in a traffic incident and shifted to the Reserve where vandals toppled it and prised off some of its lead lettering. Such is the aura of these figures that the RSL was going to bury the truncated effigy, but Tremlett prevailed upon them to allow him to show it. The effect is like walking into a secular church.
The installation used the space for maximum aesthetic impact and the exhibition held the attention of a large audience, piquing the personal interest of some who spent time searching for cenotaphs in their home towns.
As an outcome of his research Tremlett found that the majority of figures were produced by Italian artisans, often from Carrara marble, so many have the appearance and accoutrements of Italian soldiers. Usually they are infantry soldiers, (privates), however there are four sergeants and four light horsemen. Six female figures are shown in a position of reflective remembrance. Most were carved from durable marble, four are of sandstone which is the most frangible, and four are bronzes sculpted by Margaret Baskerville, Victoria’s first professional woman sculptor, and fellow Victorian Charles Web Gilbert.
His project also discovers that the Swiss-German pacifist August Rietmann was the most prolific Victorian sculptor of Digger statues which he produced for H.B. Corben and Son of Clifton Hill. He is thought to have produced only three to five figures, but Tremlett’s identification of an artist’s ‘autograph’ —the ‘A’ patch carved on the shoulders of many of the figures, and characteristics of the modelling — indicates that Rietmann produced at least twelve.
Clayton Tremlett’s oeuvre is inspired by Australian history, into which he conducts extensive historical research that is realised in print media; linocut, etching and serigraphy, and in the form of wallpapers, artists’ books, ironic historical plaques and editioned prints.
In Australia, he is represented in the Australian National Gallery, Bendigo Art Gallery, Byron Shire Council, Castlemaine Art Museum, Charles Sturt University, Geelong Art Gallery, Monash University, Moreland City Council, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, State Library of Victoria, Tweed River Art Gallery, Wangaratta Art Gallery and Warrnambool Art Gallery collections.