Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Royal Australian Air Force Historical Records Section


Eric Thake (1904-1982) served as Official Artist, R.A.A.F. War History Section from late 1944 to April 1946. He was the second combatant artist appointed by the R.A.A.F. in World War II. He undertook two tours of duty, which exposed him to unfamiliar landforms, urban contexts and military installations in various locations: Port Moresby, Noemfoor Island, Morotai, Alice Springs, Darwin and Koepang, Timor.

Thake's period as Official War Artist marked a decisive turning point in his career. He was confronted with a new and specific objective: to act as a visual narrator in the field, depicting places and incidents of R.A.A.F. operations in wartime. To achieve this, he shifted from his cerebral, esoteric and abstracted Surrealism of the 1930s and fashioned a manner which still turned largely on Surrealist precepts, but which was more responsive to physical and visual stimuli. Thake was driven closer to nature, to objects, or the fusion of the two. His Surrealist demeanour was linked to visual reality, provoking a dialectic between poetry and appearance. The R.A.A.F. works achieved the most productive flowering of Thake's hallucinatory powers, an approach which paralleled Salvador Dali's paranoiac-critical method.

Thake's Official War Art reflects influences of contemporary British Official War Artists, especially John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. The work of the English circle of Maritime Surrealists, of whom Edward Wadsworth was the most important, also provided a potent range of models from which Thake's Official War Art drew obliquely.

Before the war had forced French Surrealists to take sanctuary in New York, they had portrayed states of mind that were representative of wartime: despair, alienation, and dislocation. These moods were evoked in varying degrees in Thake's portrayal of bombed buildings and plane dumps. His work also engaged a number of motifs - including the mirror, the portal and the simulscrum - which had been key motifs in European Surrealist painting and films, although Thake would not have been always aware of these precedents and examples.

Thake was one of a small number of war artists who presented a new insight into the nature of contemporary warfare. His work recognised that war had become, as Reichsminister Albert Speer would later say, "dominated by technical means". This wasw especially true of the war role of the R.A.A.F. Thake depicted materiél rather than man as being the primary protagonists in warfare, often lending mechanical forms anthropomorphic properties. Thake's Official War Art showed him to be as deserving as Wadsworth of Sir John Bothenstein's phrase "a true poet of the age of machines".