Last Saturday I went to see Ben Quilty’s exhibition ‘After Afghanistan‘ at the National Art School in Sydney, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial. I hadn’t seen Quilty’s paintings in the flesh before and wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be so shaken by them.
And I wasn’t planning to write about the exhibition here. But then I read the comments of one of Quilty’s subjects, Air Commodore John Oddie, and changed my mind. Beside his portraits Oddie had made these observations:
‘You can’t take the experiences out of your head / You can’t take the damages out of your heart’
‘Either through a lack of insight or through an unwillingness … I wasn’t admitting the truth to myself about my life. Ben really took that out and put it on a table in front of me like a three-course dinner and said, well how about that? And you know, I sort of thought well, I’m not going to come to this restaurant again in a hurry!’
Quilty had initially planned to paint from photographs he’d taken in Afghanistan of the soldiers staring into the sun – dazzled, exposed, shocked. But when he returned to his studio in Australia, he found this approach didn’t work. It lacked immediacy. So he invited some of the soldiers to his studio to sit for him, naked. The result are these raw, vulnerable portraits.
Which took me straight to the battlefields of Troy and of ancient Italy. To Hector’s death at the hand of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad:
‘Death cut him short. The end closed in around him. / Flying free of his limbs / his soul went winging down to the House of Death, / wailing his fate, leaving his manhood far behind, / his young and supple strength. But brilliant Achilles / taunted Hector’s body, dead as he was, “Die, die! / For my own death, I’ll meet it freely – whenever Zeus / and the other deathless gods would like to bring it on!”
With that he wrenched his bronze spear from the corpse, / laid it aside and ripped the bloody armor off the back. / And the other sons of Achaea, running up around him, / crowded closer, all of them gazing wonder-struck / at the build and marvellous, lithe beauty of Hector.’
And the death of the Trojan soldier Euryalus in Virgil’s Aeneid:
‘But while he begged / the sword goes plunging clean through Euryalus’ ribs, / cleaving open his white chest. He writhes in death / as blood flows over his shapely limbs, his neck droops, / sinking over a shoulder, limp as a crimson flower / cut off by a passing plow, that droops as it dies / or frail as poppies, their necks weary, bending / their heads when a sudden shower weighs them down.’
(Both passages are taken from translations by Robert Fagles.)
‘For a long time before Lara came to the house the kitchen was Marcus’s living quarters. There was no electricity so the refrigerator was used as a clean white cupboard to store clothes. He seldom visited the other interiors, the doors fastened, a muffled thud indicating that a book had detached itself from the ceiling. Qatrina and he had built up this collection over the decades and it contained the known and unknown masterpieces in several languages. Up there Priam begged Achilles for the mutilated body of his son Hector. And Antigone wished to give her brother the correct burial, finding unbearable the thought of him being left unwept, unsepulchred.
‘He went on a journey whenever he received word about a young man somewhere who could possibly be his lost grandson. Though he feared there was no hope of locating someone whose face you had never seen, whose face you didn’t know. The last excursion was to a city in the south of the country during the Taliban regime, and like the other times it was fruitless. There he saw an abandoned and locked-up school for girls into which, he was told, every book to be found in the city had been thrown on Taliban orders. When he put his ear to the keyhole he could hear the sound of worms eating the millions of pages.’