It is logical that artists should be part of the organization of total war, whether to provide inspiration, information, or comment on the glory or the stupidity of war. (A.Y. Jackson, in Canvas of War, p 19)
War broke down old preconceptions, old inhibitions; it offered subject matter – death, mutilation, destruction – they had never dealt with before. They had to render the obscene tolerable, the ugly beautiful, create life out of death. Under the stress of this dance macabre, some painters created extraordinary and unforgettable works of art. (A Terrible Beauty, p 15)
The Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) was established with a view to immortalizing the Canadian contribution to the war. Now the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art of the Canadian War Museum, the ultimate collection is the largest visual record of the war.
Exhibits immediately following the war were popular, but interest quickly waned. Most of the works remain in storage, although more are on view in the new museum building that opened in 2005. Interest seems to increase on milestone anniversaries or when Canadians are once again at war.
From time to time the paintings and sculpture form the core of special exhibits. A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War are catalogues from two major exhibits that dusted off some of the paintings and found different ways to make them relevant for new audiences. Both examined the war art programs from WW1 and WW2. I read the WW1 parts.
Temporary exhibits live on through catalogues. They are the next best thing for those who missed the main event, also engendering a hint of regret at not seeing the art in real life.
A Terrible Beauty: The Art of Canada at War
A Terrible Beauty toured regional galleries across Canada from late 1977 to early 1980. Heather Robertson’s catalogue juxtaposes colour reproductions of the paintings (and a few sculptures) with an anthology of texts. The excerpts from letters, journals, memoirs, poems and the like are firsthand accounts by those who lived through the war, mostly on the front lines. (Not clear if the texts were part of the exhibit.) The selection of paintings shows CWMF work from the Western front and the home front.
Great concept, executed with varying success. At times, texts and paintings complement each other, giving greater context. At times, they are an odd and uncomfortable match – for example the account of a deserter shot at dawn opposite sculptures of munitions workers. Texts by the same author are scattered throughout the book, leaving readers to discover connections by chance.
Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945
Canvas of War, Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum was a blockbuster exhibit, on display at the Museum of Civilization in 2000 then touring to eight other Canadian cities from 2001 to 2004. It was billed as the biggest touring show of war art ever mounted in Canada.
The accompanying catalogue is by Dean F. Oliver and Laura Brandon. In addition to the colour reproductions, it includes two essays about WW1. Born in Battle gives a brief history of the Canadians in the war zone and on the home front, as the foundation of the nation-building mythology. The Face of Armageddon looks at the role of the artists and the CWMF in that mythology. The authors also say that the artists’ war experience was a “major building block” in the evolution of Canadian art, most notably the formation of the Group of Seven.
Short of a visit to the National Gallery, the Canadian War Museum or a special exhibit where the war art is on view, these books are worth a look. A bonus is seeing colour reproductions that were only in black and white in Art at the Service of War.