War Diaries

A selection of visual diaries of Australian artist George Gittoes, covering the period between 2001 and 2014, have been recently digitised by the State Library.

Click through on the image below to view the diaries online on the State Library’s website

These standard issue A3 sketchbooks capture the creative process of an extraordinary artist. 

Painter, printmaker, film-maker, performance artist and photographer George Gittoes AM was one of Sydney’s Yellow House group of artists and established a career as a significant Australian artist. Since 9/11 he has been committed to developing a visual response to the early 21st century’s ‘War on Terrorism’. 

The heavy sketchbooks have travelled the world with Gittoes, through war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, while working in Berlin, Norway and New York, on holiday and at home in Australia. They have been used as a clearing house for a mind bursting with ideas. Each diary bears a distinctive graphic cover. Inside, the immediacy of handwriting, mark-making, sketching, doodling and collage jumps off the page. The Library’s catalogue describes them as diaries, but they are also artworks, film notes, business records, scrapbooks, family albums. 

In September 2003 Gittoes records ‘Visiting the Prado, imagining it bigger and darker, art better than expected’. Then a few pages later he is redrawing Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica in Baghdad. 

On 10 October 2006 he is on a flight to Chicago, reflecting on a recent visit to London for the launch of Rampage, his documentary exploring freestyle gangster rap in the Miami ghetto of Brownsub. The diary offers a glimpse of the behind the scenes machinations of producing and promoting a film. 

For researchers now and in the future, these visual diaries reveal germs of ideas before they develop into creative projects, as well as concepts that did not evolve beyond the diary. Scrapbook style, they include correspondence with broadcasters, interview questions and shooting schedules for films alongside drawings, collages and journal writing.  

They show how Gittoes collected inspiration for his art practice. They record the hard, dogged work of seeing projects to fruition. While the subject matter varies, the technique of drawing, writing and collating remains the same. Images from the media are the catalyst for a number of drawings: newspaper clippings featuring Margaret Thatcher, Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, George Bush, Eddie Obeid, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are the basis for grotesque representations of powerful figures. 

Looking through more than 30 volumes, you can see Gittoes’ discipline in keeping a visual diary as well as the sheer consistency of his work. More than anything, Gittoes’ diaries show an artist responding to the war zones he is living and working in. They cement him as a war artist of international repute, documenting his struggle to represent his experiences. As he writes in 2003:  

Just as I always find the impression of a war from watching the news is never anything like what I find — I have accepted the experience of my art cannot approximate being there … 

Despite this limitation, Gittoes’ continuing endeavour to reveal the horror and complexity of war is remarkable.  

The George Gittoes art diaries, 1987-2015 collection of 44 diaries were acquired in 2014 and the Library has recently digitised 6 volumes, providing online access to these extraordinary works.

– Louise Denoon, Senior Curator

State Library of NSW