Too often, beauty is associated with a lack of substance. It’s easy to look at something beautiful and debate its worth, but its power is often a symptom of something much bigger and more elusive.

On a sunny day, Sydney Harbour has this slightly perplexing effect. Its beauty is so arresting, you can’t help but second-guess yourself. Ken Done understands this. The harbour features heavily in the work of the Australian artist, whose buoyant images of Sydney achieved icon status around the world in the 80s.

“Sydney harbour is a constant source of inspiration for me,” says Done. “To most people, the work I’ve done is essentially a celebration of Sydney Harbour, and my studio’s right by the harbour so I’m very fortunate.”

However, Done’s latest exhibition is a darker incarnation of his role as a chronicler of harbour life. ATTACK: Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour, which opens at the Mosman Gallery on May 19, portrays the 1942 attack on Sydney Harbour by the Japanese. He was commissioned to produce the paintings by the Mosman Gallery to commemorate the attack’s 70th anniversary.

“The younger generation might not recall this, but I’m 71 and can remember being a young boy in 1945 and that there was a net you had to go through on the Manly Ferry,” he says of this largely forgotten chapter in the city’s past.

“Every city has a dark side – it’s just that popular imagery tends to focus on the more celebratory things. When you can see suicide bombers on your telly at home, I think the role of art is about beauty and celebration… But to be given this opportunity to tell this story and to make it into art was a great challenge.”

The series of 15 artworks explore the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour including the journey to Australia and the assault itself, which saw 21 people lose their lives. Although the images are rendered in Done’s trademark bold brushstrokes, they are wildly at odds with the images he is known for – the depictions of Sydney that sold the city to the world.

Emblazoned on the T-shirts and resortwear produced by his design company Done Art & Design, Done’s images are indicative of a certain Australian cultural moment, but this hasn’t stopped critics from questioning his populist approach.

Done’s response, however, reveals his signature combination of passion and pragmatism. “Whatever you do, you have to do it as well as you can and that means that some things you will do to seek a wide audience. If people make a record or make a film, they actually want people to go and see it. When I made things to seek a wide audience, whether it was swimwear, or resort wear or even a simple T-shirt, I wanted people to buy them. That was the exercise.”

That said, Done is quick to point out that while his early work was extremely commercial, “T-shirt is not the Sistine Chapel”. This is why he has spent the last 20 years making paintings for himself, staging over 50 exhibitions in Australia and overseas. He says that the fact that people continue to like them is just a great bonus.

As for Done’s love affair with Sydney, dark side or not, an anecdote from his day best sums it up: “This morning was beautiful. I was able to get up, walk onto the beach – it was crystal-clear, autumn water. I went to the studio, did a bit of work and got my paintings together. Sydney is a constant source of inspiration for me and I’m very lucky to be here.”

ATTACK: Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour opens at Mosman Art Gallery tomorrow (May 19) and runs until July 8. Admission is free.

done.com.au