QUT sculptor brings heroic nurse to life at Australian War Memorial

Acclaimed Brisbane-based artist and QUT visual arts lecturer Dr Charles Robb has created a bronze statue commemorating Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel AO, MBE, ARRC, ED. Unveiled last week in Canberra, it is the Australian War Memorial’s first sculpture honouring an individual nurse or woman.

A collaborative project with the Australian College of Nursing, the sculpture recognises not only Bullwinkel, but all Australian nurses who have lost their lives, survived atrocities, or made sacrifices while serving their country.

According to the Australian War Memorial, the sculpture will stand as a constant reminder of her exceptional military service and importance to the story of Australian nursing.

Vivian Bullwinkel (1915-2000) was the sole surviving nurse of the Bangka Island Massacre, when the Japanese killed 21 of her fellow nurses on Radji Beach, Bangka Island, in what is now Indonesia, on 16 February 1942. She then spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war and on her return to Australia was proclaimed a hero, awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal in 1947, the year she retired from the army.

Shirley Bourne, Matron Vivian Bullwinkel,1962

In 1985, Bullwinkel was appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial making her the first woman trustee of this institution. In 1999, she donated her wartime diaries to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the day before the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial which she worked tirelessly to raise funds for.

Dr Robb was chosen to create the work through an invitation design submission in 2020 and the powerful finished result is a tribute to the challenges and accomplishments of all Australian nurses.

“I’ve had the joy of spending the last few years spending time with and obviously working on the sculpture but also researching into Vivian’s awe-inspiring life,” Dr Robb said.

“The key thing I wanted to achieve was to capture a likeness and a sense of the way she carried herself in the world. My sculpture uses a vertical symmetrical pose to depict her as a figure of monumental strength – a point of moral navigation for us as we consider our national history in this setting.

“But I also wanted to use other elements to allude to the quieter forces that shape and emanate from all human lives. Here the veil and dress evoke the gentler movement of wind and meet the concentric waves that ripple outward form the sculpture’s bronze base – together embodiments of the quiet impact Vivian Bullwinkel had on the world around her beyond her wartime achievements.”

Cast at Billman’s Foundry, Castlemaine, the sculpture includes 22 inlaid stainless steel discs reflecting Bullwinkel and the 21 women killed in the Banka Island Massacre. The discs are arranged at the base of the sculpture as a reflection of the stars that would have been visible in the sky on that fatal night.

The Vivian Bullwinkel statue can be viewed in Poppy’s Forecourt in the Eastern Grounds of the Australian War Memorial.

Dr Robb has been creating sculptures for more than two decades. His interest in portraiture and the history and conventions of figurative sculpture has led to him undertaking major public art commissions including Reverie I (2015) for the Brisbane City Council’s City Artworks Public Art Program, the General Sir John Monash Commemorative Sculpture (2018) for the Australian War Memorial (with Sarah Holland-Batt) and most recently the 10th Light Horse Regiment Memorial Sculpture (2018-2023) for The City of Swan Council, WA (with Sarah Holland-Batt).

Dr Robb’s work has been seen in numerous group and solo exhibitions and can be found in various public collections including the National Gallery of Victoria, MONA, Art Bank and the Latrobe University Art Museum.

Main image: Dr Charles Robb at the Australian War Memorial for the installation of his statue of Vivian Bullwinkel

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