Passchendaele Centenary: Robyn Hughes' art of war

by Clare de Lore / 04 October, 2017
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Artist Robyn Hughes. Photo/Ken Downie

Robyn Hughes has turned an interest in World War I history into art that honours the work of Kiwi servicemen and the women they left behind. 

It was a wet, bleak morning and a cold wind was blowing across no-man’s land, bringing with it the stench of the dead. Shiveringly, we formed up in line of sections and at six o’clock to the second our artillery barrage came down with a roar of thunder, and off we moved. The attack has commenced …” – In Flanders Fields: The World War One Diary of Private Monty Ingram.

For three years, Auckland artist Robyn Hughes has immersed herself in grim eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Passchendaele, including New Zealand’s blackest day, October 12, 1917, when 843 soldiers died in a single morning’s fighting at Bellevue Spur. Thousands of other Kiwis died during the doomed three-month campaign to capture the Belgian town of Passchendaele and a staggering 500,000 combatants from both sides perished there.

Hughes and husband William Akel travelled to Belgium several years ago to visit the places where so many died. Now, she has commemorated the New Zealand men and their stories and the support work done by women back at home in an exhibition entitled Home Front to Frontline – Passchendaele, which opened in Whakatane on September 16.

Hughes was born and raised in Auckland. Her father, Cecil, was in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. But, like so many others, when he returned home to his family he never spoke of his wartime experiences. His wife, Margaret, and their children, Robyn and John, were left in the dark. In 2011, Hughes was invited to contribute to an Italian exhibition about Cassino and in the course of her preparations, Passchendaele caught her attention.

The centrepiece of Home Front to Frontline is Lament, an intense work on five large panels that includes a Passchendaele timeline, quotes from soldiers’ diaries and accounts by historians. Before she even took up a paintbrush, Hughes devoured book after book on the battle. Her Auckland studio now houses a library of books on the subject.

Hughes spent years teaching art in New Zealand and overseas, and studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London. In 2010, she was awarded a Prison Arts Leadership Award for her work with inmates at Auckland’s Paremoremo Prison.

How did your prison work come about?

Someone asked if I would consider teaching an art class there, so I went to the prison with a colleague. We taught an introductory still-life class that day, then I agreed to do six sessions over six weeks and see how it went. I wasn’t sure they would be interested in what I had to offer, but at the end of the six sessions, the men said, “No art next week?” I stayed for 17 years.

Were they talented?

I was impressed by the quality of work, which was staggering, and the energy and the positive support for that art group from the men. A full art class every Friday, really rocking with the room full of people and the men’s sounds [their music]. We did lots of exhibitions and some donation projects. One of them involved making works for the new Auckland City Hospital, which was under construction. After seeing the exhibitions, the reviews in the papers and the comments from visitors and from the hospital, I felt very proud. I was aware that for anybody, positive feedback drives you forward, regardless of whether you’re a student at high school or a prisoner. It is all about self-esteem and life skills.

Zero Hour, by Robyn Hughes, which commemorates the New Zealand assault on Messines Ridge at 3.10am on June 7, 1917.

Zero Hour, by Robyn Hughes, which commemorates the New Zealand assault on Messines Ridge at 3.10am on June 7, 1917.

For the better part of this decade, you’ve been immersed in art focused on war. How did it start?

I have always been interested in history, but I’d never done painting in relation to history before. I got started with the Cassino project in 2011. I was asked to do one painting for a group exhibition, because my dad was at Cassino. Dad never talked about it, so I ended up doing research to get the details. While I was digging away and reading as much as I could, I saw a comment from [Lieutenant General Bernard] Freyberg about Passchendaele, so I decided to look into it.

You have collected dozens of books on that battle now. Where did you start?

I read an interview with Helen Clark, who said she had read Massacre at Passchendaele, by Glyn Harper, so I went to the library to look at it. Harper’s small book is so clear; you can see what happened and why. I started reading more and referring back to that. As I became more attuned to the events, I developed the confidence to look at the official histories. Our own library at home had various military histories, then I looked at the Auckland Museum’s fantastic archive. When text gave me a clue, I followed it up. For example, Harper mentioned British correspondent Philip Gibbs, who wrote in the 20s [after censorship was lifted]. I found his Now It Can Be Told online.

Did you know immediately how you would translate these stories to canvas and paper?

I made scruffy, not arty, notebooks, by hand, personalising it for myself. By gathering material like this, the paintings have evolved. I nibbled around the edges trying to decide where to begin. Sir Wira Gardiner spoke alongside me at the Cassino exhibition, because I had referenced his book on the Maori Battalion, Te Mura o Te Ahi: The Story of the Maori Battalion. After that, I decided to do something on the engineers, because they were always dealing with battle infrastructure. It was really hard work, with the infantry and artillery dependent on them for roads, tracks and communications, and all in terrain that was a quagmire. So, I’ve brought the engineers into the Passchendaele work.

Where does the “Home Front” aspect fit into this work?

After the Cassino show, I decided I’d like to do something in my next big body of work about the women doing their bit at home. I started looking at the women doing knitting, because my mum was a prolific knitter who made things during the war, and her mates did the same thing. I looked at the knitting of socks for troops during WWI [by women] throughout New Zealand and the Empire.

Why the extensive annotation of the canvases with dates and quotes?

It makes it accessible for viewers. I thought things of interest to me may also be of interest to others. I was asking myself those “who, why, when, how and what” questions. I was learning, and in order not to get lost, if I put the reference in the work, I could refer back immediately. It was also a way of acknowledging my source, rather like a footnote on an essay. As I am not a historian, if viewers ask me about the references, I want to be clear in acknowledging where my information came from, whether it was Glyn Harper, [senior historian with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage] Monty Soutar or Sir Wira Gardiner. I have taken the information they collated and interpreted it visually.

Did you find all that material on Passchendaele emotionally draining?

Very. There were days when I didn’t want to deal with the war. Graphic text from the likes of Monty Ingram, who was a Lewis gunner and lost members of his team. It was very draining to read, and so real, even though it was 100 years ago.

How did you cope?

I’d do it in bits, then leave it. The first time I read these accounts, it was shocking. It is always shocking, but the first time is more so. You can’t believe what you are dealing with, then you realise this is part of our history. How did I deal with that in paint? You become immersed in it and it drives you on.

Of all the books you’ve read about the war, which ones would you recommend?

I always refer to Harper’s book. All the information is there, but is very accessible for those who aren’t historians. And Monty Ingram’s diary, because it is written in such a fluid way. One of his quotes is, “When night again fell, we were still there, a mud-caked, filthy bedraggled lot.” He describes it in terms of grime, smell and sight. It is staggering. Official histories are masked in military speak, so when they talk about casualties, tactics and that kind of language, it doesn’t reach a layperson. If you know what you’re looking at, it explains a lot, but it doesn’t immediately reach you on an emotional level.

Are you done with war now?

I don’t know. The intensity drains you, but now I’ve done the work, we hope to go back to Belgium in the next couple of years. Then I can stand there and reflect on the way I’ve put this work together. The whole point of doing this is reminding yourself of these enormous events that happened to us as a nation, collectively and individually. When you look at both world wars, every New Zealand family was affected in some way or other.

Commemorating Passchendaele – Home Front to Front Line, Whakatane Library and Exhibition Centre, Whakatane, to December 3. Then at NorthArt Gallery, Northcote, Auckland, for two weeks in April 2018.

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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