“This unveiling has been a long time coming. Almost three years ago I was commissioned to paint Ben Roberts-Smith. Many meetings, drawings photographs and now two finished portraits later, here we are. My work takes me a very long time to make, and Ben is an incredibly difficult man to get hold of. That first contracted year I think he served his final tour of Afghanistan and ever since, our nation’s continued fascination with this man has meant that pretty much everyone wants a piece of him.
“My job as I saw it was to offer yet another piece of this man; to somehow do justice to the Ben Roberts-Smith who looms so large in our collective consciousness, but also to offer a piece of myself, the artist, and in so doing contribute to the story of this exemplary Australian.
“I’ve often reflected that as a nation we are very good at describing what is un-Australian but in order to articulate what is Australian we turn to hyperbole and symbolism; we create heroes and idols. That Ben Roberts-Smith has become a heroic figure in the hearts and minds of so many Australians is clear. He has come to represent so much of what we hold dear as a nation. That he is a reluctant hero endears him to us even more, because it is genuine. He didn’t seek the accolade.
My job as I saw it was to offer yet another piece of this man; to somehow do justice to the Ben Roberts-Smith who looms so large in our collective consciousness…
“The small portrait was the first work I created for the commission. It captures the first time I saw Ben on morning television being awarded the Victoria Cross by Quentin Bryce. His spectacular frame towered over that of our then Governor-General and it struck me then, and in the coming days, that it was an honour that sat heavily on this man.
“When I met Ben I was struck by his self-effacing humility. As he observed, the award meant a shift from the anonymity of being a high level soldier to a kind of fame and celebrity that he was largely unprepared for. It is difficult as a civilian to comprehend the actions that led to the award. Reading the transcript of the events as they unfolded I had a sense of the chaos of battle, but chaos that is tempered with rigour and discipline.
“Reading about it is distinctly odd – at a remove I can hardly comprehend what ensued. Ben has said that it is an honour shared and this is not a trite expression. He means it. We never spoke about that day; rather we spoke about what he does, or did. I wanted to understand and he generously shared.
To make work for yourself as an artist without thought of any audience in particular is a crucial position to find.
“Looking at him being feted I had the sense of the solitariness of his experience – he might try to impart what it felt like, what happened, but in truth it was a singular solo experience. With this painting I wanted the humility of the scale to describe something of this solitude but also to describe the humility of the man, in contrast to the grandeur of the award.
“From the outset I wanted to create a body of work about Ben and I’d like this to continue past today. The preliminary drawings and photographs that led to the big painting were not planned for the Australian War Memorial but rather as work I felt I must make. To make work for yourself as an artist without thought of any audience in particular is a crucial position to find. Inevitably this always leads me to my to the best work.
“In one studio sitting I asked Ben to show me various combat stances sans any weapon. I wanted to emphasise the humanity, the flesh and blood nature of Australians at war, in increasingly mechanised warfare and capture the dynamism of this action. Sometimes a thing is more conspicuous in its absence and it becomes a space to project our own thoughts and feeling, our own concerns. As an artist I have always sought to provoke thought by asking questions in the work rather than providing answers. The conflicts and questions about Australians at war that I personally hold are no different to those we all share, but meeting Ben granted me a deeper understanding.”
Ben Roberts-Smith is a former Australian soldier and recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia, the highest award in the Australian honours system. Michael Zavros’ portraits of Mr Roberts-Smith, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial, are unveiled today in Canberra.