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Churcher's war


In the seven years since she retired as National Gallery director, Betty ‘Blockbuster' Churcher has continued her mission to demystify the fine arts

THE headlines and the tumult belong to another era. And by the time you reach the end of the gravel and dirt driveway that winds through the vineyard to Betty Churcher's farm retreat, they might as well belong in another country. Her house -- 30 minutes from Canberra's centre, Philip Cox-designed and corrugated iron-clad, its arc roof a playful echo of the Sydney Opera House -- speaks only of rural serenity.

It's seven years since Churcher retired as director of the National Gallery of Australia after a seven-year reign that began in controversy, continued amid stuffed-shirt sniping from the critical sidelines and ended with sadness and trauma. It was also a reign that revolutionised Australian gallery culture by making the world's best art accessible, and gallery-going widely popular, via a series of visionary exhibitions the press dubbed Betty's Blockbusters.

Many saw her retirement from the NGA as the full stop on what had been a glittering career of arts administration and academic authorship. Before her NGA appointment, she had been art school dean at Victoria's Phillip Institute and director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where she had had to negotiate around the ‘‘erratic genius” of then chairman Robert Holmes a Court. She had headed numerous national advisory boards and committees, in 1996 been made an Officer of the Order of Australia and the following year named The Australian's Australian of the Year.

As she had done throughout her career, however, Churcher wrong-footed popular opinion, beginning a three-year career writing and presenting immensely popular programs on art for ABC television.

Now 73, she is still far from retiring from cultural life. She is adjunct professor for the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. And she is still determinedly making quality art accessible and relevant -- this time her blockbuster is a book-and-TV double feature that explores the range and diversity of art inspired by war. Next year comes the TV series, this week the book. Lavishly illustrated and succinctly elucidated, The Art of War charts how artists have interpreted Australian involvement in conflicts from World War I to the war against terror in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, showing also that while war has influenced movements in art, art has also affected attitudes to war.

The Churchers are a close-knit clan and there's a protective if subconscious checking-out process to be gone through before I receive the interview all-clear. Her husband, artist Roy Churcher, meets me first, accompanied by the family dog Pinot, whose stick-in-mouth greeting demands a getting-to-know-you throw. Son Paul, who manages the family vineyard ‘‘and keeps Roy and me and our amenities ticking over”, makes a quick refuelling pit stop at the house, then Roy brews us coffee before disappearing to his studio further down the property.

Only then do Churcher and I retire to the family-sized dining table, a carved work of folk art in a discreetly artistic living room. Paintings in a melange of styles and sizes, many by friends and family, line the long wall behind us while across the room a windowed wall frames a wide veranda and, beyond that, a northerly panorama over a dry creek bed towards an amphitheatre of circling hills complete with abundant trees and the odd kangaroo. In the corner, a country-idyll wood-fuel heater promises cosiness but the room's welcoming warmth actually emanates from a feisty gas fire. And from Churcher.

She exudes an aura of calm authority, benign dignity and can-do competence, handy assets for dealing with artistic turmoils, for raising four sons and for coping with ‘‘a cataclysm of grandchildren” at Christmas. Composure is the keynote but it would be imprudent to misread this as passivity; Churcher prefers convivial relations in all things but she has a discerning intellect and a driving spirit -- she has never been afraid to assess, and then act.

The Art of War, she says, ‘‘was born out of a deep despair that I can't even let you understand the magnitude of -- for two years I'd wanted to do a project on Aboriginal art. I wanted to get together the great art of mostly living Aboriginal artists and show them as you would any great art, their roots, their development and so on. But the fact I was not Aboriginal made it a problem of political correctness for SBS and the ABC, and they wouldn't take it on.”

At about this time in late 2001, when she ‘‘was in black despair”, her Melbourne-based son Peter was selected as the Australian War Memorial's official artist to record our military involvement in the coalition against terrorism in Afghanistan.
‘‘His appointment got me thinking, about him and how he would cope, and then about other war artists ... and then those beyond the official war artists who were also recording impressions of war. And I realised just how little I knew about the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

So she began to explore war via artists' eyes, and soon spotted a distinguishing divergence in perspective -- the human element. ‘‘Historians are interested in how many people landed on the beaches, how quickly they established themselves. The artist in the trenches or at the front line focuses more on the discomfort of life there, on the camaraderie that develops. They are not necessarily great artists but they have left incredibly evocative records.”

She was hooked on what became a 30-month project of ‘‘really intense research. I was at the war memorial archives every day, trawling through file after file, reading personal correspondence, looking at diaries ... much of the material I drew on has never been used before.” She had envisaged the project solely as a TV series, ‘‘but after that was shot I found I had so much relevant material left over that I decided to write a book as well”.

The whole multimedia project is bookended by two personal relationships: at one end her son's Afghanistan posting, at the other her father's involvement in World War I. She has dedicated her book to her father, William Dewar Cameron, who was so keen to sign up for active service that he had all his teeth extracted rather than have his induction delayed for minor remedial dental work. It was, she writes, ‘‘a rash decision he was to regret for the rest of his life”. He saw service at Ypres and Bullecourt, was gassed, and discharged as medically unfit in 1918.

‘‘He was always terribly reluctant to speak about anything to do with his war experiences, even though as a child I used to pester him to tell me. This reluctance seems to have been in due proportion to involvement -- those on the periphery were quite happy to discuss their experiences a great deal, but Dad became almost phobic about it. He also became phobic about smells, and related that to his memory of rotting corpses and dysentery and mud in the trenches.”

She used to think her father's silence about the war was because ‘‘he was just a taciturn, withdrawn man, and there's no doubt he was by nature, but when I started reading the diaries from young soldiers at the front I realised why he used to say, ‘There's no point talking about it, Betty, you wouldn't understand.' He literally couldn't make me understand what it had been about. How could you possibly get the catastrophic horror of it across?”

The project had an unexpected personal reward: it allowed her to better understand her father, who was, she says, a dominant influence on her life, ‘‘even if I did find it difficult to get as close to him as I wished. He was an amateur artist who got me interested in art, but everything about him I wanted to emulate. His mother died a month after he was born and he grew up in the Scottish Highlands with his grandmother, who spoke only Gaelic. I grew up very much my father's daughter, and in many ways, yes, I am like him, a bit dour, a bit laconic. I also like to be on my own, to be solitary.”

Besides which, her mother, although strong-willed and a strong influence, ‘‘wasn't gregarious at all”. Churcher always felt ‘‘a bit on the outside as a child because Mum was of that Victorian ethos that believed women had defined roles. I was always being told that certain behaviour was inappropriate because I was a girl.” That was a war front on a familial level and her ‘‘liberation” came only after a family legacy allowed her to go to an all-girls school, Brisbane's Somerville House, where ‘‘they expected the absolute best of us, no matter what it was, whether we were going to be judges, brain surgeons or mothers”.

As for her son Peter's war tour of duty in 2002, Churcher says it ‘‘didn't worry me from the safety point at all because I knew they were far more protected than the early war artists. My main worry was how he would cope because he refuses to paint from photographs -- he operates on emotional and visual stimulus -- and I didn't know how he would be able to get people in a war zone to stay still. But he succeeded brilliantly, focusing on the intimate moments around the people rather than events they were engaged in.”

Her research also focused on moments of great intimacy in war, and it had its own collateral damage.

‘‘As you deal with the material, what had been a concept becomes a tangible reality, and that became quite confronting at times -- understanding the battles, what happened and why, and realising the extent of the genocide. I was also aware that the unofficial artists were flouting death from their own side as well as from the enemy because strict orders forbade anything being recorded at the front line.”

Such war censorship is not unusual, she says. ‘‘Australians at home had no idea that Gallipoli was a failure until after the war, and we knew nothing of the extent of the bombing of Darwin in '42.” Besides, in World War I it was almost considered unpatriotic to show defeats and setbacks -- ‘‘even the Anzac book that C.W. Bean initiated, which was by the troops, for the troops and published in 1916, was all to do with humour and self-deprecating fun; it had very little about the true horror of their situation, which was ghastly.”


In the 10 years of the Vietnam War, she says by way of illustration, ‘‘around 500 Australians died -- in the battle of the Nek in August 1915, nearly half that number died in less than an hour. The magnitude then of human casualty was colossal.”

We also forget how young the soldiers are, I mention, recalling the previous night's serendipitous TV screening of Full Metal Jacket, in which troops that had been engaged in scenes of the most brutal carnage in Vietnam were marching back to base singing the Mouseketeer theme song. ‘‘It was the same in World War I,” she says, ‘‘the flower of youth, a generation was gutted ... when I was at school, a whole generation of maiden ladies was around because the local men of marriageable ages had been decimated.”

During her research she uncovered ‘‘many, many, many personal revelations, not just about myself and my father but also about art, and Australia. For instance, I found a letter from Hans Heysen to Lionel Lindsay talking about George Lambert's landscape in A Sergeant of the Light Horse in Palestine and how it looked so like the Flinders Ranges. That inspired him to take his palettes and brushes into the Flinders Ranges in the '20s and '30s and that started the whole post-war thing of painting our inland as a subject in its own right. Prior to that, coastal Australia had been considered the only valid pictorial scene; the earlier exploratory inland paintings by the like of T.S. Gill had a topographical impetus.”

Yet while World War I changed our focus on the landscape and our concept of what was pictorially accepted as a landscape, ‘‘in Europe it gave rise to expressionism, to surrealism, to dadaism, to a whole different movement in art based on the trauma of the war”. It was a head-and-heart dichotomy, mirrored during World War II in the differing approaches by Sydney and Melbourne artists.


In Melbourne, ‘‘you had young Arthur Boyd, young Sydney Nolan, young Albert Tucker looking towards the European artists and expressing a kind of internal angst over the war. But Sydney artists like [William] Dobell, [Russell] Drysdale, [Donald] Friend, [David] Strachan, even the young Margaret Olley, were much more about vision, and looking towards the British war artists. That difference should have been apparent to me before, but it took working on the book to bring it out.”

While not all the art of war is great art, she concedes, some is. ‘‘Gordon Bennet, George Lambert, Arthur Streeton are great artists within the Australian context, and I think the challenge of the war somehow brought out the best in them. It moved them out of their comfort zones, and they produced some very important works.” She hopes the book, and later the TV series, will also alert people to ‘‘what we call minor artists and the value they have within the general structure, so that we are looking at the slopes and the valleys as well as the peaks. That allows the whole-picture perspective.”

She also hopes to capture an audience beyond history and art buffs. The Art of War, she says, ‘‘is a multifaceted approach -- words, paintings, sketches, photographs and TV -- and I think the time is right for a project like this because in a curious way the zeitgeist is now focused on combat and warfare, and the human cost, ingenuity and sacrifice these entail. We have had renewed interest in D-Day and World War II, for instance, and then there is the situation in Iraq.”

* * *


IN many ways, Churcher is, along with writer Olga Masters, a never-say-never pin-up gal for late starters. Brisbane-born and raised, she had shown near precocious ability as a child for drawing and in her late teens won a rare scholarship to London's Royal College of Art. She recalls herself then as an obsessed and obsessive painter, her whole life dedicated to pursuing her art. In London in 1953 she met and married fellow art student Roy Churcher (‘‘although he was studying at Slade”). She actually proposed to him, she has said, at Poole Harbour in Dorset when they were going on a boat trip. ‘‘I'd got into the boat and he was just about to step in when from nowhere I said, ‘Why don't we get married?' He nearly missed the boat.”


She laughs when I mention the incident. Before she met Roy, she'd had several boyfriends but none she wanted to be with ‘‘for more than six months”. But he was different, she says, ‘‘and I thought I wanted to be with him for some time”. She still feels this way, she smiles, more than 50 years later. She was also relieved he didn't hold with stereotypes of beauty: ‘‘I grew up in an era when Marilyn Monroe was the female ideal. But I'm five foot 10 inches [178cm], was always self-conscious, skinny and as flat as a board.”

In 1957, after six years away, she returned to Australia on a quick visit to see her parents and introduce Roy. They had left a flat full of furniture and books in London, ‘‘and I would never, ever have come back if I thought we wouldn't be returning to it”. Roy, however, fell in love with Queensland, and she fell in love with raising her children there when they unexpectedly began a family.

Life changed in another way, as well. Once her first child was born, she stopped painting, her creative energy subsumed by raising her family. Raising her children also delayed her transition from former painter to cultural commissar by the odd decade or so, and it wasn't until her youngest son Tim went to school in 1971 that she started full-time work at Kelvin Grove Teachers College in Brisbane as an art teacher. She also became art critic for The Australian in 1972 until, ‘‘in 1976, I took a year of study leave and went to the Courtauld Institute in London”. As you do, when you are a 45-year-old art teacher and mother of four.


‘‘And when I came back to Australia with my masters [degree], I'd suddenly became very desirable and was being head-hunted for all sorts of things.” Simple, really. Except, of course, it wasn't.

The Courtauld, Britain's leading institution for teaching and research in the history of art and conservation, has notoriously searching admission criteria, and the course was handled ‘‘only with difficulty”. It was, she says, ‘‘the hardest year I've ever put in because it was actually a two-year course. Roy looked after the kids, they were all in Dover in Kent, and I was living in college, working up to 13 hours every day.


Each week I had to present a 5000-word paper, often on very arcane subjects. It would take all week to research and I would start writing on Thursday evening for the Friday delivery, often working through the night. I developed the most incredible RSI, I used to have to pack the tendons on my wrist and then bind them as tight as possible with bandages.” Then came a major thesis and three written exams ‘‘that frightened the life out of me because I hadn't done an exam since I left school 28 years before. Adrenalin carried me through.”

Her motivation for undertaking the course had been a midlife crisis of conscience. She believes only painters can teach painting convincingly and when she started at Kelvin Grove, she felt ‘‘a fraud because I wasn't actually making art myself”. So she moved into teaching the history and theory of art, and then realised she didn't have qualifications for that either. ‘‘So I took that plunge, and as I'd done when I was 20, I thought I should go to the best place I could and test myself against the most rigorous standards. And in art history, that's the Courtauld.”

The rest is, as they say, history, her rise and rise culminating in her 1990 appointment replacing the legendary and long-serving James Mollison at the then Australian National Gallery. Her appointment was contentious because she was, to the greater public, ‘‘Betty who?”

And the controversy level was ratcheted up soon after when she changed the institution's name. She had inherited an organisation that was under financial and political duress, in a building with a perennially leaking roof, with a staff appointed and trained by her predecessor that largely resented her new-broom approach. It took all her skill at facilitating and negotiating to turn the entrenched cultures around. But she did, first by making across-the-board cuts to running and staff costs, then by focusing the gallery's objectives, making it both more visible in the community and more welcoming to locals and tourists.

One of her leading in-house critics initially had been the then senior curator of international art Michael Lloyd, who by the time she retired had become her strongest supporter. She in turn supported him when, as deputy director, he applied in 1995 to replace her, and was selected unanimously. Then came what she calls ‘‘a terrible mess-up” and ‘‘the most upsetting period of my life. Another member of staff thought he should be director and could not understand why I was promoting Michael -- it was a power play and the press became involved. The mud-slinging was horrific, all this scuttlebutt stuff which had no basis, and Michael's position became untenable.”

She had intended to retire in January 1996 when she turned 65 but after the then minister for the arts, Michael Lee, failed to appoint Lloyd, she was asked to return as director for another year. She agreed, her plan being ‘‘to go back, let the dirty work become a thing of the past, let Michael apply again and get it fair and square, which he would have done, he was such a talented man. But we didn't know he had this incipient cancer that had spread to his brain ... and I believe the trauma caused by the furore over his appointment accelerated his decline. Everything happened so quickly, it was like a forest fire spreading and he died in May 1996, just four months after being diagnosed. I never got the chance to explain to him what I was doing. He was a marvellous man tragically lost.”

That battle over her successor was one of the few she lost, and she remains, she says, ‘‘saddened and disappointed by the whole situation”. Now she has her own cancer battle to fight after she was diagnosed with a melanoma on the optic nerve. Laser treatment of it has been ineffective but ‘‘we're optimistic that radiation will work”. She is effectively blind in one eye, ‘‘which is a bitter irony for someone who has lived by looking at art, and it presents some challenges with walking and balance”.

Overall, though, she is philosophic. ‘‘Once I'd got over the shock of finding I had it, I became much more relaxed about things. Something like this alters you for the better because it makes you stop trying to control things -- you just want to focus on what's important to you.”

And for her, what's important is very clear: the same things as have always been important -- personal relationships, friendships ... and her work, of course.



Published in The Weekend Australian, 9 Oct 2004 Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


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