A personal reflection of World War I through art
I was commissioned by Ballarat’s Backspace Gallery as part of the exhibition Leaving for the Front: Artist’s Respond which was on display between April and May 2015 during the World War I centenary. The brief was to create something in response to Dora Meeson’s 1916 painting, Leaving for the Front.
When I first viewed Dora’s beautiful painting, I saw three generations of women who were being left behind: the softness of their skin, the emotion in their eyes, the colour of their clothes, the tactile nature of their environment and the uncertainty of the future that lay ahead.
I chose to create an oral and pictorial recollection, involving an assemblage using mixed media.
I set out to interview Victorian women who remember what the war meant for their grandmothers, mothers and aunts, and to record their stories. I soon discovered that their deeply emotional recollections and sparing quotations deserved dignity and discretion, and were best presented as anonymous.
While contemplating the impact of War on the lives of women, I also found myself reflecting on the early adulthood of my own paternal grandmother, and her sisters: the ‘MacMillan girls’ of Terang, Victoria, along with their friendship circles.
I am the custodian of several photo albums detailing the MacMillans’ social life from 1924 to 1926, so I felt compelled to incorporate a small selection of these images, which were taken around Western Victoria.
I have long been struck by the lack of men present in my inherited collection. At the outbreak of the war, most of the women pictured in my artwork were, in fact, the age of the adolescent girl in Dora’s painting. By the time the 1920s came, they were in their prime and wanting to socialize and even flirt a bit, yet there was an absolute shortage of men.
I also have in my possession quite a few images of women posing for pictures in which one young woman in each duo portrays the male gender. On close inspection of group images, I’ve also noted the presence of androgynous looking women wearing pants. As a child I recall interpreting this as some old-fashioned girls’ game, or simply assumed that some of these women were in fact men. I now recognize the sub-text and the unspoken possibilities.
One of my great aunts was, in fact, a friend of Dorothy’s. In her later life, we shared careful conversations on the subject, over small crystal glasses of French wine in the reading room of the home she shared for over 50 years with her life-partner.
I found the process of undertaking this work to be a fairly profound personal journey. Given I was preparing it all exactly one year after my father’s death, it was very moving to be considering his maternal line in such a contemplative and sociological way.
When I looked at what I was putting together I would sometimes shed quiet tears. So much sadness, so many secrets and so many skeletons in closets. I sincerely hope that I’ve given fair voice to women who’ve been unable to speak openly about these matters, for whatever reasons.
Written by Ailsa Brackley du Bois, a multimedia artist with a life-long fascination with cultural heritage and history. Her oral history research for ‘Women Remember’ forms part of the source material for The Last Goodbye, a film about remembrance produced by Wind & Sky.