I got a bolt out of the blue yesterday. Having recently decided to stop writing articles on other peoples work and concentrate on my own writing – which I have yet to do – I received an email from Andrew Turley, an Australian art lover, who earlier this year was asked to write an introduction to an exhibition of work by the painter Euan Macleod entitled ‘Gallipoli’. While researching Macleod, one of New Zealand’s finest contemporary figurative painters, he came across a short article I wrote on mutantspace over two years ago and in response got in touch. And this is where the email comes in.
Having thought my articles were floating in a digital vacuum – without form or function – I was delighted to hear that someone, somewhere, was reading what I wrote about this wonderful painter who is not as well known in Europe as he is in the Antipodes. Turley attached his introduction, as well as a number of photographs of MacLeod’s pictures, and asked if I could post them up. An addendum of sorts to the original article. I am honoured. So here it is.
Gallipoli is in the Dardanelles where in 1915 (WWI) the British authorised an attack on the peninsula to seize control of the straits. The first allied troops landed on 25 April 1915 and after eight months of stalemate, brutal hand to hand combat and horrendous casualties on both sides they were withdrawn.
The campaign was a defining moment in the history of Turkey, Australia and New Zealand and formed the basis for the Turkish War of Independence and the founding of the Republic of Turkey eight years later under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who first rose to prominence as a commander at Gallipoli.
It was the first major military action of Australia and New Zealand as independent dominions, and is considered to mark the birth of national consciousness in those nations. The date of the landing, 25 April, is known as “Anzac Day”. It remains the most significant commemoration of military casualties and veterans.
Euan Macleod in No Mans Land
I don’t know the bloodied sands of Gallipoli. But I remember the mud of WWI battlefields on the Western Front. Pozieres Village and the heights beyond – a ridge as densely sown with Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) sacrifice as any other place on earth – Hell Fire Corner and the churned fields of Polygon Wood. Bullets, buttons and shards of bone underfoot. I saw these battlefields when I was 21, a young officer trained in Australia and serving in the New Zealand Army. But the battlefield I saw was filled with chalky-white headstones shoulder-to-shoulder, standing in gentle fields and cloaked in faith and solitude. 25 years later and 16,000km away, I stood on a concrete floor in front of Euan Macleod’s ‘Figure Carrying Skeleton’ and felt the mood of the Somme once more.
Euan Macleod, an internationally renown artist born in New Zealand and living in Australia knows the sacred ANZAC field called Gallipoli. He walked it – the narrows of The Nek, the dusty rolling flat of Lone Pine and the ragged steep of Mule Gully. As he pushed his way through the “scrub that sat like a skeleton”, he forced himself not to touch a paintbrush for two days, intent on absorbing the landscape and the sense of place. He strained to hear the faint echoes from among the hills, and see the shadows of the lives that spent themselves in this corner of the world. His paintings of Gallipoli are not a black and white memory fixed from faded photographs or schoolboy texts. It is a deeply personal intersection with the violently shared history of three nations – Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.
Euan is like no other artist. His narrative is consistent, wildly limitless, dramatic yet subtle. His images will leap from a moment to a memory, through to a symbolic dimension and change canvas by canvas. His work can be appreciated in its simplest form – a snapshot of a foreign field – or seen as a complex tapestry, toughness and vulnerability interwoven with fragments of memory that draw down to a deeper statement about the human condition or the spiritual power of a shattered landscape.
On the surface Euan’s Gallipoli is a specific time and place. Glimpses of Turkish cities are structured in thickness and light. The landscapes are neither the red desert dry of Australia, nor the dark plunging gullies or coastal blue of New Zealand. They have an other-worldliness. Figures shift between those visiting the sacred ground and its permanent inhabitants whose presence is infinitely more weighty. More soldierly. They are not defined by deeds, humour, fear or red raw violence, but by the universal nature of a soldier: persistence, existence, faith and doubt.
Look just below the surface of the paintings and there are shards of Euan’s memory half buried in the paint: Turkish women veiled in hijab, haggling and laughing over a missing tree on a plein air canvas; an antipodean father and son following in the footsteps of a great-grand-uncle who rests beneath the same dust they scuff into the air as they tread the gullies; a wounded Australian, arms draped about the shoulders of a Turk and immortalised in bronze above the Lone Pine cemetery.
Go deeper still, and an exploration of conflict and duality is inevitable – there are two figures, two sides, past and present, parent and child. A sense of identity, and the outsider, is inextricably linked with the sense of place – soldiers in a foreign land, a painter as a tourist and a piece of Australia and New Zealand on a Turkish shore.
In the dark depths, Euan tugs at the threads of history “it was barbaric, I wonder if some of the truth of it has been buried in the myth” while behind him there is a canvas, two figures armed with shovels covering, uncovering, protecting or hiding something below the surface.
Creating a comfort and connection with rich and ambiguous imagery is the brilliance of Euan. He allows us to relate to unknown places, times and emotions in terms of things we know. Buried in his dense, textured and sculptural work there are touchstones that help define where our own history intersects with the emotion of the work. In Euan’s words “it’s about how we remember, what we remember and why we remember it. How we deal with the past and respond to the landscape.” In these works you discover your own layers, your own touchstones, and your own sense of Gallipoli.
Turley was so moved by ‘Figure carrying Skeleton’ that he bought the painting. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position to do the same.