George Gittoes – ‘Australian Art Collector’


Australian Art writer

Heart Of Darkness


Taking in George Gittoes touring survey exhibition ‘I Witness’, provokes a visceral response, like being given a swift kick in the guts. The images are the stuff of nightmares, describing in paint, drawings, prints and on film, horrific events witnessed by the artist over four decades of covering the world’s war zones. But the work is so compelling, it’s hard to turn away from it.

Gittoes believes that the role of his work is ‘confronting humanity with the darker side of itself.’ He is one of the few contemporary artists who has borne witness to so many conflict zones over the past 40 years. Since the 1980s, he has covered hostilities in Nicaragua, Somalia, Cambodia, Bosnia, South Africa and Rwanda and more recently in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are probably few war zones in recent years that this man has not visited. His raw, figurative painting style, drawing on German Expressionism, is accompanied by films and visual diaries made in situ.

His artwork is part visual reportage, part social realism, and partly his own subjective expressionistic interpretation of extreme moments in time. Viewers be warned that this exhibition is not for the faint-hearted. The images he has gathered from the frontline are harrowing and heartbreaking. From Neo-realist drawings of female soldiers, to horrific images of dismembered bodies, maimed faces, skeletal figures and bound corpses; these tormented humans often create stomach turning images. Sometimes accompanied by long captions describing the events which took place, the artist is bearing witness to horrific crimes that may have otherwise remained unreported and its helpless victims, whose suffering would otherwise remain unnoticed.

In this sense, he is an extraordinary and unique figure in the Australian artworld. Yet many find his work difficult to place; the artist deliberately works outside of contemporary trends and fashionable art fairs. In the past he has been accused of being a swaggering gonzo style journalist, akin to war reporters who cannot escape the adrenalin rush of visiting conflict zones.

There is indeed perhaps a kind of madness in being drawn to such sites of human carnage. However, from Gittoes perspective, just as we are encouraged to remember the Holocaust of World War II, so we should not forget the global atrocities of more recent decades. It is therefore problematic to judge his practice by contemporary standards of art criticism. He is a social humanist whose intention is to deliberately drive the viewer out of complacency, to raise awareness and illicit compassion.

No matter what you think of his work, the very act of creating art in places of mass destruction is a brave statement of hope and humanity in itself.


A 45 Year Survey.
Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest, Penrith, New South Wales.
May 28-August 16, 2016

Art exhibition interview by Victoria Hynes
George Gittoes article by Victoria Hynes