International SketchCrawl (TM) #34 – Sydney (preparation): ANZAC War Memorial (2)

December 24, 2011

3B pencil and Staedtler Fineliner pen 03

Tried doing some outdoor urban sketching today but ended up getting soaking wet from the rain. The summer pattern of southerly busters in the afternoon is no more; it seems to rain now in the mornings.

Idealism and Fascism

In sketching Roman classical busts recently, I’m intrigued how surly they look. Apparently they represent the dictatorial father figure ideal of Roman society. The sculptors have tried very hard to capture individuals’ special physical features. I feel like I’ve been drawing Mafia-looking characters straight out of the fabulous film clip for Italian pop song, Pensa by Fabrizio Moro. A natural progression from drawing from photographs of Roman classical busts was to tackle the various heavily-Classical public sculpture around Sydney. The Victorians liked to put their sculpted humans very high up on the building facades (QVB, Town Hall, Lands Dept Building) but I notice Art Deco moves them more to ground level (City Mutual Building, Archibald Fountain, Martin Place Cenotaph), though the ANZAC War Memorial does both.

I wonder why architects call Art Deco in Sydney, Inter-War Art Deco. Are they trying to downplay inherent aspects of Fascism? They don’t really succeed because such feelings and values were already welling up before 1939. The problem nagging away at the back of my mind is that re-creating Classicism in the human figure borders on supporting Fascism, the idealism having been co-opted by all the great 20th century totalitarian regimes (Germany, Italy, Russia, China). I’m constantly surprised by the extent to which 20th century Fascism is still envelops us: from the upcoming Warhouse movie, to Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited and The Hour on the little screen, from the endless lineup of documentaries on SBS TV about WW2 to the current wave of feminist literature taught in our universities. I’m preparing to study for a course next year on WW2 in French Literature which includes boning up on the following: Rebatet, Les Decombres; Irene Nemirovsky, Suite francaise; Simone de Beauvoir, Sang des autres; Simone de Beauvoir, War Diary; Agnes Humbert, Resistance: memoirs of Occupied France. I’m supplementing these with Bruce Marshall (causes of WW2 from a French Catholic perspective), Barnard Eldershaw (causes of WW2 from an Australian perspective), George Orwell (causes of WW2 from an English perspective) and Irene Nemirovsky, David Golder (causes of WW2 from a French Jewish perspective). I started with Frederic Spott’s The Shameful Peace because I can’t read straight history, preferring to see it through the lens of artists, theatre directors, novelists. They all have in common the Nazi takeover of Paris in June 1940, the Fall of Paris, and the fleeing of the populace, the pegaille. Millions of Parisians on the road south joining refugees from Belgium and Holland, like those fleeing the Middle East and South Asia and North Africa today. What did the uptight French of the south think of the great unwashed turning up at their door? We are those feudal Auvergnats, those snotty bourgeois so well captured by Nemirovsky. Did they say who would come to their shores and how? They certainly did.

ANZAC War Memorial and “contemporary values”

Which brings us to social values of the 1930s embodied in architecture. The Memorial’s architect Dellit talked about his radical departure from revivalism to Art Deco as an expression of contemporary Australian values. I suppose those values are buried deep in M. Barnard Eldershaw’s novel. From the literature (and architecture of the same period such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge), I’m supposing those values are built on the materialism and sectarianism rife after the Great Depression. The commentators mention money being raised to build the Memorial; that money must have been raised before everyone lost their savings in the Crash of 1929 – the Memorial being built between 1929 and 1934. What must have donors thought – to have given money freely and then lost their savings? Were donors expecting (like the Sydney architect community) a comforting, revivalist building, fitting into expectations of Sydney becoming a Victorian garden city, even though Queen Victoria had been long dead? Do the Sydney Harbour pylons and this Memorial represent the turning point for Sydney, away from a Victorian garden city to a strikingly daring modern(ist) one? Why were Sydney architects in the 1930s so conservative?

My drawing old buildings and Classical busts must seem frightfully conservative to many. I often question the moral validity behind urban sketching as an activity. I mean, there is no such thing as “objective” reporting – it’s all subjective. Do I operate like Irene Nemirovsky, branded as a self-hating Jew? Why is there a streak among Sydney gays and lesbians who exalt monarchism and fascism, racism and military fetishism? Christos Tsiolkas is one of those who fights back (Melbourne gays have beeing providing a moral backbone to their Sydney counterparts since 1972 – some of us well remember the ‘invasion’ of Paul Voss, Barry Prothero, David McDiarmid in that year). Tsiolkas’ hero of Dead Europe uses portraiture, portraits of the working class, as his vehicle. Not something you can push forever. Ross Watson produces Caravaggio-type chiaroscuro figure-on-ground paintings. I am interested in looking at what social values of the time were conveyed in buildings being built and used and how those values relate to mine, decades later. I read David Golder and am not shocked at all, as I ought to be: the bullying Golder, devoid of any moral compass, sounds like any high-minded CEO of today. Contrast the absence of tax being paid in Bruce Marshall’s Yellow Tapers with Kerry Packer’s exhorting us to do the same at the infamous Senate Estimates Committee hearing. We note the absence of paying taxes as national pastime in Greece and Italy and the consequences now for the Eurozone. I should be appalled by Orwell’s characterisation (bordering on caricature) of poverty in London, but it’s a daily occurrence in Sydney today with 100,000+ homeless nation-wide. Moral panic among businessmen in Sydney about the Occupy movement is not unlike the response by wartime censors to the M. Barnard Eldershaw novel. I should be shocked by the charisma of the Nazis whom the French were clearly swayed; De Beauvoir (in her diary) and Nemirovsky (in her novel) were clearly not alone in being impressed by alluring courtesy and politeness of the invading Nazis. Nemirovsky has been criticised by writing a love story in response to the Nazis – though we ignore the fact that in Blood of Others, De Beauvoir does the same thing. And De Beauvoir’s heroine is even more of an airhead than any flightly female in Nemirovsky’s Suite francaise! Is De Beauvoir untouchable as a philosphical great, compared to the miserable fate of Irene Nemirovsky? For me, it’s seems correct that faced with Great Hate, bothwriters should strive to dig deep with their essays in Great Love. Why do we go all girly when faced with military hunks? I recall the way female gorillas demur before the dominant Silverback. Obviously you never want to examine your heroes too closely: Nemirovsky stayed-and-waited while De Beauvoir joined the Resistance. Cocteau simply wondered where he was going to get his next cocaine from. The 1930s bear a striking resemblance to our own times, not least because we are coming up for air after a Great Financial Crisis. What will future generations make of our Gehry buildings, their almost comic sense of collapse under their own weight? Reflections of our own ‘contemporary values’?The veneer of civilisation is falling away in our attitudes towards foreigners, towards the environment and sustainability – from our cruelty towards “illegal” refugees to our embracing windfarm location “standards” founded on a complete absence of any peer-reviewed scientific data. Some of us are watching-and-waiting, some of us are resisting, some of us are collaborating. Bruce Marshall would contend that if we aren’t in the grasp of an economic elite (his French top 200 families and our 1% vs 99% today?) then at least we’re ground down by bureaucracy (offshore refugee processing creating psychos running amok in our society the future- will we issue a State apology to refugees for turning them into sociopaths the way we’ve apologised for the Stolen Generation and children in foster care?), expedient political decisions thundering down to us from the past (Palestine; German war reparations from WW1 only paid up a year ago in 2010) and double-standards (newspaper journalist’s and shockjocks merely “reporting” and “following” and never framing the debate, a la Murdoch and the current UK enquiry). The sacrifice of the individual today seems like an oft-repeating talisman down through the ages: our Julian Assange and Bradley Manning today paralleling the tribulations of Alexandre Stavisky or Ego Kisch in the past.

ANZAC War Memorial’s Art Deco

I’ve sketched the western facade of the building from a photo, taken, like yesterday’s around 1pm. I say “Western” because of the importance of the bronze freizes above the entrance door. Frankly, in visiting the building in the past, I’ve never taken them in, missing the point of the building. But I realise now that just as M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was a novel jointly written by two women, this Memorial is jointly conceived by two men: Dellit’s architecture and Rayner Hoff’s sculpture. I reckon Dellit must have asked Hoff straight off how big a frieze he could sculpt and used this 10m as a base measurement for the rest of the building. Dellit’s skyscraper-temple (it had to be Classical in feel, but not Revivalist like some Sydney Town Hall) is 30m high – so the whole lot fits nicely into a 30-metre ‘square’.

The fan-shaped steps (not visible here) are paralleled in the ziggurat stepping of the roof. The bronze friezes are paralleled in the band of pink granite higher up. There are skyscraper effects in the graduated fenestration. And of course the Hof sculptures operate at regular intervals from the ground up.

Hof restricted his sculpture to the entrance portico of City Mutual Building at 44 Hunter Street. A similar black marble is felt in that other Dellit-Hoff collaboration, Kinsella’s in Darlinghurst, off Taylor Square (formerly an undertakers, now a restaurant/dance hall).

Sydney usually doesn’t hang on to buildings in its central business district after more than ten or twenty years. If it lasts twenty years (for whatever reason), it seems to go automatically onto a heritage list! The interesting thing about the Memorial is that it serves no functional purpose. Its purpose is as asymbol of our ethics and morality and spirituality. It is a temple, but the religion is a mix of our memories, our survivor guilt (those 210,000 gold stars in the ceiling!) and our glorification of war. Australians love war. Like the Americans, we don’t like it when it comes to us, but we love going to it, like a moth to a flame. We love to see the world and kill people along the way. Like paedophilia and domestic violence, it’s passed on from one generation to the next, atuomatically and unthinkingly. N0-one’s prepared to break the cycle of violence. We tolerate its hypocrisy and ambiguity, just as Christians we play with the Church Militant and Soldiers of Christ while talking about charity and compassion. ‘Contemporary values’ expressed in architecture must therefore be contradictory impulses in balance. Delitt and Hof make us bow our heads inside the ‘temple’ or ‘church’ in order for us to see and contemplate Sacrifice, Hof’s sculptural centrepiece. To this extent, it’s a bit like Paestum. Or even the Acropolis – an empty temple, but full of meaning and adored from the outside.

The last point I want to make is that the Memorial looks vastly different today from when it was first built. When it was first built, there were virtually no trees around. The construction of the underground railway at St James and Museum meant the park looked like a football ground. Today, the Memorial rises out of vegetation; its lines are softened by a copse of surrounding, protecting trees. At the time, it rose out of a desert, unsheltered by any surrounding buildings. I’m old enough to remember the J Walter Thompson HQ and other low, squat buildings in College/Liverpool/Elizabeth Streets (wasn’t the US Embassy nearby?) being demolished and replaced by a Central Park NY-like framing of Hyde Park. Australian contemporary values busted on to this scene via the War Memorial like a precursor of Brutalism, completed just two years after the Sydney Harbour Bridge.


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