George Gittoes on war, peace & contemporary art
By Cat Doyle
Make Art, Not War
For the last five decades, Australian artist Dr George Gittoes AM has travelled into the heart of darkness: to war zones, killing fields, and areas of conflict; documenting his observations through painting, drawing, writing, and filmmaking. Yet Gittoes is not about the glorification of war. A humanitarian and winner of the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize, George Gittoes describes himself firmly as an anti-war artist.
First Study in Oil for 'The Preacher', George Gittoes 1995 (Image courtesy the artist and Spud Lane Gallery)
Gittoes' 1995 painting, The Preacher, won the Blake Prize for Religious Art (his second win in three years) and is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. In his autobiography Blood Mystic, Gittoes recounts the events in Rwanda behind the painting. In an atmosphere of abject fear, amid the Kibeho massacre, a yellow-coated preacher was reading the Sermon on the Mount from his tattered bible. All around, people sat calmly listening, as they drew strength from the courage and faith of the preacher man. The preacher paused and asked George to try to take three newly orphaned boys to safety, which he did. When he returned shortly afterwards, the area was flattened and still, with no one left alive. Gittoes never forgot the preacher. It is estimated that 4,000 men, women, and children were killed that day.
This harrowing but very human story is typical of George Gittoes. In his travels to Cambodia, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and many more places in conflict, surrounded by soldiers, tanks and gunfire, he has borne witness to carnage and atrocity. Everywhere, he has found people facing the unimaginable, responding in ways that lay bare their humanity.
While Gittoes started out documenting conflict in an effort to bring about change, he has come to the realisation that documenting war doesn’t stop it. George reflects, “I have worked in most of the worst conflict zones since the Vietnam War to show that humans can rise above war through its opposite, which is creativity. My work has never celebrated war or military heroics (which has usually been the role of war artists). What I do is a very serious attempt to show the madness of war and try to help civilisation evolve beyond tribal conflict.”
Last year, George and his partner Hellen Rose travelled to Ukraine to create a large peace mural in the centre of the capital Kyiv. They aimed to meet with local artists and ordinary Ukrainians, hear their stories and share them with the world. The resulting feature-length documentary, Ukrainistan Artist War, premieres this month at the 2023 Salem Film Fest at the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston US before touring the international film festival circuit.
House of Art (Irpin, Ukraine), George Gittoes 2023 (Image courtesy of the artist)
Rather than a direct reproduction of the scenes witnessed, Gittoes has always painted the feeling behind the events, and his Ukraine paintings evoke something more than the devastation wrecked upon the buildings and culture of Ukraine. The paintings have a kind of geometric beauty, as the debris of war is woven into a synthesis that gives it impetus as a beautiful work of art.
One of Gittoes’ major ongoing projects is the Yellow House, Jalalabad in Afghanistan, which he founded in 2011 with his partner Hellen Rose at a time when art, film, music and dance were forbidden by the Taliban. At great personal risk to those involved, the Yellow House was a safe haven where artists from all disciplines could meet and work.
Gittoes has a long-standing association with Yellow Houses. In 1970, he was a founder of the famous Sydney Yellow House artist collective alongside Martin Sharp. In 1971, the hippies moved in, and Martin and George bowed out. Gittoes recollects that Sharp wanted to recreate the Yellow House in war-torn Hanoi where it was most needed. This never eventuated, but Gittoes did manage to continue his friend’s legacy by establishing a Yellow House in turbulent Jalalabad.
More than twenty years on, Yellow House Jalalabad has outlasted Afghanistan’s military occupation by the US and their close allies and is thriving as an art-making centre teaching new skills to the local community. Referencing Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, Gittoes says, “There is a growing world art movement towards bringing these changes to human behaviour to result in a more peaceful future, free of war.”
But Gittoes' art is not only about raising awareness of the madness of war. Gittoes’ Lovers series is about beauty in the face of everything.
Doorway to the Other Side (To Jim Morrison), George Gittoes 2018 (Image courtesy the artist and Spud Lane Studios)
As a flip side to the carnage of war, the Lovers series is a reflection of Gittoes’ mysticism. These large-scale canvases use ancient Buddhist and Persian woodblocks and hand-cut stencils to build up a story executed over many years and many layers of paint. Some of these paintings can take up to six years to complete. George typically begins these paintings during his time in a conflict zone, before rolling them up for transport back to his Australian studio and re-stretching them to continue work. Perhaps they provide a relief from war and conflict for Gittoes; certainly, they are more directly in line with his continuing efforts to allow creativity and beauty to flower even in the midst of conflict.
Eastern Grey at Seven Mile, George Gittoes 2019 (Image courtesy of the artist)
Back in Australia, George clearly feels a connection with the local landscape. His 2019 plein air paintings of the bush behind Seven Mile beach conjure up peaceful mystical spirits that share a common geometry and chaotic beauty with his 2023 paintings of interiors in war-torn Ukraine. Yet even here there is protest: the kangaroos within the landscape are a political statement against Australiana kitsch and its lack of respect for the native fauna as the original inhabitants of the land.
Gittoes paintings are often confronting: an unflinching portrayal of the atrocities of war. Yet his driving force is one of hope; where art truly makes a difference, bringing about social change, and an alternative to war.
Guernica (detail), Pablo Picasso 1937
If one examines Picasso’s Guernica closely, one would find a tiny white poppy sprouting next to a fallen soldier, which Picasso intended as a symbol of hope and peace to come. Maybe that poppy encapsulates George Gittoes' philosophy.
George Gittoes and Hellen Rose head back to Ukraine in April 2023 to film a sequel to Ukrainistan Artist War before the Russian offensive planned for Spring threatens travel in and out of Kyiv.
In support of his project, Spud Lane Gallery has an exclusive portfolio of George Gittoes artwork which is available by appointment. Contact us for further information. Alternatively you may visit the Gallery during our opening hours to view selected works in person.
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