Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Art at the Service of War

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Monday Monuments and Memorials started as a way to ensure regular posts on this blog. My reading habits can make the timing of book reviews haphazard, but I can count on a weekly photo. I take an expansive view of what belongs – war art fits as much as cenotaphs and other tributes to the war and those who participated.

References to the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) keep cropping up for various paintings and sculptures around Ottawa. You know me … I’m off to learn more.

Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War, the 1984 published version of Maria Tippett’s thesis, is a scholarly analysis of the people and politics of the CWMF. She examines the making of the art as well as the CWMF administration. The artwork that illustrates her points is reproduced in the book. (Unfortunately they’re in black and white, but colour reproductions can be found online for the most part … some on this very site).

The CWMF was set up in London in November 1916 by newspaper baron Max Aitken (he was later Lord Beaverbrook), with a view to immortalizing the Canadian contribution to the war. Art would be used for propaganda in the short term and for an historical record in the long term. Photos and cinema of the time were not long-lasting, so could not be fully relied on for the job.

The cost to the Canadian government was little. Artists who were hired received an officer’s rank and pay, but the CWMF was almost entirely paid for by private funds. Over 100 painters and sculptors were associated with the CWMF.

Mostly British artists were engaged. Many were also commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee (later the British Pictorial Propaganda Committee) – Bone, Orpen, Nash, Nevinson, Kennington, Lewis, Rothenstein and John, amongst others. (Overlap was inevitable: Beaverbrook eventually headed the British Department of Information.) The CWMF also gave opportunities to Canadian artists – like Cullen, Jackson, Lismer, MacDonald, Milne and Varley – albeit only from the Anglophone male art communities in Toronto and Montreal. The home front program engaged some women, including Carlyle, May, Loring and Wyle. The CWMF also acquired historical paintings of significance to Canada.

The CWMF gave “an unprecedented and wide-ranging number of artists an opportunity to express their war experiences in bronze, watercolour, and oil at a time when it might have been considered frivolous to do so.” (p 4)

The ultimate collection is the largest visual record of the war.

Immediately following the war, highlights of the collection formed popular exhibits in London, New York, Montreal and Toronto. Then disinterest:

While the CWMF collection was being broken up and Canada’s Golgotha hidden away, war monuments and trophies were being erected across the country. Every city and most towns had at least one ‘Lest We Forget’ monument; every service club a trophy of war. The new Parliament Buildings had a Peace Tower with a carillon and a Memorial Chamber with Books of Remembrance. These works – cenotaphs, memorial sculptures, war trophies … embodied an idea rather than the artistic expression of an event. Unlike most of the works of the CWMF, they could possess any meaning the viewer wished to give them: sacrifice, waste, sorrow, pride, even redemption. (p 103)

The plan was always to hand the collection over to the Canadian government. Beaverbrook’s vision was to house it in a dedicated war memorial building in Ottawa. That was never realised. Instead the collection was transferred to the National Gallery of Canada and mostly kept in storage. Eight large canvases were sent to hang in the new Senate Chamber, where they remain today:

  • Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915, Edgar Bundy
  • A Mobile Veterinary Unit in France, Algernon Talmage
  • Railway Construction in France, Leonard Richmond
  • Arras, the Dead City, James Kerr-Lawson
  • On Leave, Claire Atwood
  • The Cloth Hall, Ypres, James Kerr-Lawson
  • The Watch on the Rhine (The Last Phase), William Rothenstein
  • Returning to the Reconquered Land, George Clausen

Eventually the National Gallery transferred the collection (except the historical paintings and paintings by David Milne) to the Canadian War Museum. Again, most remain in storage, although more are on view since the new museum building opened in 2005. They form the core of special exhibits from time to time. Interest in the collection seems to increase on significant anniversaries or when Canadians are once again at war. I will examine some of these exhibits in a later post.

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

2 thoughts on “Art at the Service of War

  1. Pingback: Monday Monuments and Memorials – Canadian War Art, Senate Chamber, Ottawa | Great War 100 Reads

  2. Pingback: A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War | Great War 100 Reads

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