Published  27/06/2012

Ken Done - Attack: Japanese Midget Submarines In Sydney Harbour

Attack: Japanese Midget Submarines In Sydney Harbour

Paintings By Ken Done
Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney
19 May–8 July 2012


It is remarkable that an event of such magnitude, as the surprise attack by Japanese forces on mainland Australia in 1942, has not played a greater role in Australian modern history. Seventy years ago Sydney Harbour was attacked for the first and only time. On the night of 31 May 1942 three Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour, causing mayhem and fear. For a great many Australians it marked a fresh course of history and engendered a stronger sense of identity in relation to Asia and the wider world. To mark the 70th anniversary of this extraordinary event, the Mosman Art Gallery in Sydney commissioned Ken Done to find a visual language for this narrative that has always been close to his heart, in a series of paintings.

Done’s painting has become synonymous with Sydney Harbour, yet his remarkable success in the field of applied arts such as he established with his wife, Judy in the 1980s had tended to keep him outside of the art world proper. Done’s art is unique in Australia for embracing the commercial application of the painted image. The industrial systems into which Done has extended his painting have resulted in a global proliferation of his designs. In Japan, where art and design have always been inextricably bound he is long recognised as a major figure. In his article for Studio International, “Art and Industry”,1 the late Bernard Smith draws a clear distinction between craft sequences as such, and fine art sequences. It is in this latter context, of fine art sequence through manipulation of personal synthesis, that Done has long succeeded in transcending purely commercial parameters. In the context of Smith’s article, it becomes apparent that Done’s success comes from his persistence in embracing the industrialisation of his painting.

Done’s hedonistic works of art have been seen to equate with a philosophy of life, equated by critics then with frivolous or intellectually superficial intentions. Since ATTACK, his most recent body of work, critics have been adjusting to recognise his true position as one of Australia’s most important artists. Done, with typical irony points out that the change in critical tone towards his work, is due to "being seventy and having prostate cancer".2 ATTACK has indeed been painted since the artist’s confrontation with his own mortality, and the images possess a darker palette, drama and determination to which an audience familiar with his Bonnard-influenced paintings (and mass-marketed postcards and clothing) of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, is unfamiliar. Indeed although his iconic images have been absorbed into the subconscious of the nation, most leading critics have for decades dismissed his work as being overly commercial. In his catalogue essay for ATTACK, Glenn Barkley writes:

Colour, light, fashion, tourism - these are the contexts through which I think we understand Ken Done - but something more exists beneath the surface of his work. We need to move beyond these too easily misunderstood contexts, these simplifications, to place his work and the lightness of it in a deeper context that is tied to place and heritage. It is not time that we placed Done into the context of Streeton and Roberts, Olsen and Nolan - all of whom lived and painted by the harbour?

Unlike these artists, the harbour has almost singularly sustained Done’s practice, consumed him in a way that makes him unique. Perhaps he is the great chronicler of the harbour. For those who say it’s lightweight, commercial, hedonistic, can you not reply that this is a fair reflection of the city itself? Or is this attitude dismissive of both the city and Done, and that all orthodoxies and views, whether they be about a culture or an artist need to be challenged, expanded and broken down every once in a while?3

In writing the only major appraisal of Done’s work, (2002), following that on Arthur Boyd (2000),4 I was myself, in the late 1990s, privy to long conversations with the artist, as well as taped interviews, and the uncensored contents of his studio. It struck me then, that the more gritty works addressing issues of Asian tourism and migration, Aboriginal Human Rights Issues, and the death of his parents had not been seen in an appropriate or true context. More often than not, the more serious or uncomfortable images were drawings, and works on paper that were quite often damaged in the crowded studio, stashed in plan chests or not exhibited.

The paintings in ATTACK: Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour, are close to the heart: his father was a pilot in the RAAF in the second world war, and away from home including 2 years in Britain; Sydney Harbour, and Done’s images of his beloved home represent peacetime, hard-won prosperity, and the good fortune to have survived. His celebration of life has never been glib or superficial, as evidenced in the yearly tribute to his father’s generation, on Australia Day. More than a celebration of Sydney’s beauty, these are the artist’s homage to those who fought for and died for freedom in the great wars. Here Anzac Day too, has long provided Done with an opportunity to remember those who paid the ultimate price, for freedom, in wartime. Health proficient and outwardly upbeat, a cancer diagnosis in 2011 came, accordingly, as a great shock. The resulting works on show in Sydney come to form a cohesive body of work, where the artist is seen to fight for and defend the essence of everything he cherishes most.

Director of the Mosman Art Gallery, John Cheeseman observes: "ATTACK: Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour is a compelling and culturally sensitive exhibition that deals with empire, self-sacrifice, death destruction and honour. This is a local story for the Mosman community, but one that has broader national and international significance .."5 

The work of fellow Australian artist Ray Arnold, can be relevantly illustrated in this context, that of a son paying homage to his father’s generation, in a profoundly sensitive manner. When Arnold studied and lived in France he felt the gravity of the war in a way that Australians, from a distance could not. He felt compelled to use an available opportunity to travel to the battlefields. Australia had supplied troops but the war was fought 10,000 miles away, and many claim that even closer to home, Singapore was an imperial betrayal.  Later, the intense anti-war protest at Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, following the heroic deeds of the soldiers in the two world wars, saw the military as being somewhat diminished in value in society at large, something that would not have happened in Britain or France. As a way of paying due respect to the bravery of the Australian soldiers fighting away from home, Arnold involved himself deeply with the subject. Bullecourt Soldier (2007), presents a meticulously drawn image of the soldier’s jacket, but no body, just a ghost-like presence. The jacket is haunting in its association, the mere shell of a battle, a loss, the signifier of tragic death. The empty jacket is a searing homage to the thousands of young men who died so remotely in the service of their country. The immediacy of the drawn image is retained in Arnold’s hard ground lines, which were drawn directly on to his etching plate at the Australian War Memorial, in front of the muddied tunic on display there.

In his catalogue essay, "When War Came to Sydney", Tony Stephens is keen to point out, that although Australia is perceived as a peace-loving nation, the country has been involved in wars since colonial times. White settlers fought against the indigenous population on arrival. In 1863, a NSW colonial force travelled to New Zealand for the Maori wars. In 1885, colonists fought in the Sudan war, the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Boer war in Africa. Fourteen years after officially becoming a nation, Australian forces made the dreadful and ill-planned landing at Gallipoli, by Churchill, followed by France and Belgium in the Great War. However, Australian forces played an important imperial role in the second world war, followed by a Commonwealth equivalent in the Korean war, the Malayan and Indonesian Conflicts, with the US in Vietnam, Iraq and with NATO in Afghanistan. The fear of attack from outside nations as early as 1839, and on several occasions thereafter persisted and was even encouraged.

Australia’s White Australia Policy made it clear that Australian governments had no intention of wide-scale immigration, and even with the multicultural policies of Paul Keating’s Labor Government in the 1980s Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been dubious, in terms of Human Rights. Defence allegiances with America and Britain, historically were sought to ensure sufficient backup from threat. The attack by the Japanese in 1941 on Pearl Harbour shocked the US, so the Sydney Harbour attack was not entirely unexpected. "The Sydney Morning Herald’s New Year’s Day editorial in 1942 said: ‘Never before has a new year dawned on us with the menace of direct attack’…. Singapore fell on February 15, Darwin and other northern towns were bombed from February 19 and the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought in early May.”6

Mid May saw the first most serious warning when a Japanese submarine fired a torpedo at a merchant ship off the coast of Newcastle, north of Sydney. A Japanese warplane had also flown over the cities of Melbourne, Hobart, Wellington, Auckland and Suva; Sydney seemed the obvious target. It was the New Zealand intelligence service that intercepted the Japanese order to attack Sydney on May 31. Five ocean-going submarines and three midgets, with a combined crew totalling 500 men, penetrated the water around Sydney. The artist notes on the image, No cause for alarm, (2011) state: “The words of the pilot Susomo Ito who flew over the harbour a week before the attack. And the official belief of the day that there was…‘no cause for alarm’.”7

According to Stephens: “The crews of the midgets were the elite special forces of the day. They had graduated after three years from Japan’s Imperial Naval Academy and were chosen for their courage, skill and sense of discipline. On the afternoon of May 31, the six submariners who were to steer the 24-metre midgets began the traditional Japanese warrior's battle eve purification. They bathed, donned clean clothing impregnated with perfumed oil, prayed, drank a little warm sake and joined other submariners and pilots of the reconnaissance planes for a farewell meal.”8

Done has an ability to see these, young men as devoted members of their countries military forces during wartime, and also as sons, brothers, and individuals of great courage and altruism. The men in their last letters made it clear that they understood that in this mission they would lose their lives. Faced with capture, they would commit suicide. The youngest, Katsuhisa Ban, aged 23, he said: “Nations that fear death will surely be destroyed. It’s necessary for the youth of Japan to take notice of this. ‘Sure-to-die’ is the spirit that will bring about final victory.”9 Ban and his partner were successful: their torpedoes blew up a moored, former ferry, killing 21 Australian Navy personnel. Eye-witnesses described dramatic explosions and chaos on the Harbour; the next morning beaches were covered in dead fish. The inadequate Sydney defence is described further in Stephens’ essay; and also in publications such as The Coffin Boats, by Peggy Warner and Sadeo Seno (1986). Caught in the net (2011), refers to the submarine that was caught in the security net in Sydney Harbour. The submariners die. Red Alert (2011) the artist describes: “Confusion is everywhere. Many messages are flashed back to headquarters. Panic. For the first time Sydney Harbour is under attack.” The attack I and The attack II, (2011): “The harbour becomes a blaze of tracer shells, bullets and depth charges. Are we under attack? Where are the submarines? What is happening?”10

Done was born in Sydney in 1940, two years before the submarine attack. He left school early, at the age of 14, to enter the National Art School in East Sydney, as their youngest ever entrant. He was relatively naïve when it came to discerning the issues that separated high art from design, especially the prejudice and elitism that kept the two apart in cultural and commercial terms. So when he submitted some of his advertising designs as part of his fifth year portfolio and was summarily failed he was naturally devastated. He had completed five years of art training but was not awarded a diploma. This was a major factor in becoming more independent from the art establishment. Where most of his contemporaries headed for Europe to see art there first hand, Done went first to Japan and then to America. Both places and cultures exerted significant impact on the development of his aesthetic sensibility. He worked for J Walter Thompson in New York, London and Sydney before becoming a full time painter in 1975, his natural vocation.

Done realised the necessity of constantly drawing from nature. In the early years of painting professionally, Done built up a repertoire of images from careful observation – shells, plant forms, the objects washed up on the beach, figures on the beach. In drawings such as Basket of Shells (1979), Done is carrying out the visual research for subsequent works. It reveals his superb draughtsmanship and his patience. The all-consuming care with which he approaches his artwork is evident in the highly accurate representation. He emphasises how, as for many artists before him, it is necessary to make detailed naturalistic drawings before applying a reductive method. He makes references to his artistic mentors in the fluid style of Matisse and by drawn images of art books of his mentors as part of a still-life composition: Picasso, Bonnard, Matisse. He has always drawn on a daily basis.

Done’s personal shorthand enables him to capture an immediate reaction, a feeling or a nuance. Among his best paintings are the linear, drawn works, amplified in scale and colour by the use of canvas and paint stick, or paint squeezed directly from the tube in a linear gesture. In the late 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s Done took his cue from the revival in drawing and thus produced amplified versions of many of his drawings. Images that had hitherto belonged to a private world of sketchbooks and preparatory drawings entered a more public arena. Done used the largest Sennelier crayons and paint sticks to ‘draw in paint’ on a large scale. Following numerous canvases that sought to capture the visual drama of Sydney Harbour, Done felt sufficiently confident to tackle a black canvas. Using no preparatory drawings and using the large crayons, he completed Beach Drawing – Black I (1995) in less than 15 minutes. He likened the physical challenge of working at such a pace to a passionate jazz improvisation or a piece of performance art.11

The contrast between the sensual confidently drawn lines and the entirely black canvases creates an impressive image. The process of mark making and the formal considerations of the picture plane are equally balanced. The marks at times become so minimal that they form a kind of Morse code in visual terms. This reductive method, with the emphasis of the placement of each mark, is firmly rooted in Done’s drawing practice.12 Conversely, the very large drawn works on paper from 1992 display the manner in which Done the painter brings lessons learned from his large paintings back in to his drawings. He was already developing the mature skills that would be brought to bear on this new subject of violence in Arcadia. The attack on Sydney has sublime echoes; the superb painting, Drowning (2011) consummates this.

In the past year the subject material has been transformed into an impressive and compassionate statement about the senselessness of war, and the need to forgive and move on. The funeral (2011) has a rare gravitas. A funeral with full military honours was accorded the four dead men whose bodies were recovered. Done points out: “The Rear-Admiral Gerald Muirhead-Gould wanted to demonstrate respect for the Japanese and hoped that Australian prisoners would be given the same. All the time no-one knew where the other submarine was.”13 These are urgent works, and among the best works the artist has completed. Done’s next preoccupation should extend this field while time and life permit. The output will be keenly awaited, the further embodiment of his life’s work as a painter.


1. Bernard Smith, “Art and Industry: A systematic approach”, Studio International, vol. 187, no. 965, April 1974, pp.158-63.

2. Ken Done, telephone conversation with Janet McKenzie, May 2012.

3. Glenn Barkley, ‘Death by Water’, ATTACK Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour: Paintings by Ken Done, Mosman Art Gallery, May 2012, pp. 6-7.

4. Janet McKenzie, Arthur Boyd: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000.
Janet McKenzie, The Art of Ken Done, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002.

5. John Cheeseman, ‘Foreword’, ibid, p.5.

6. Tony Stephens, ‘When War Came to Sydney’, ibid, p. 13.

7. Ken Done, ‘Artist’s Statement’, ibid, p.19.

8. Stephens, op.cit., p.13.

9. Quoted by Stephens, ibid, p.13.

10. Done, ibid, p. 36.

11. Ken Done, interview with Janet McKenzie, 12 November 1998.

12. Ken Done’s drawing is included in Janet McKenzie’s new book Contemporary Australian Drawing, Palgrave Macmillan, Melbourne, June 2012.

13. Ibid. The missing submarine was discovered in 2007 and the site now preserved as a cultural monument.

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