History from the tip of a paintbrush

By Natalie Sit

Sir Max Aitken, also known as Lord Beaverbrook, founded the war art program in 1916 after the gas attack in Ypres. There were no cameras present to record the horrific event, so Aitken commissioned a painting to remember what happened. There was also the belief that photographs would eventually disintegrate, leaving very little behind to remember the Great War. Aitken was a fervent Canadian and wanted to leave a record of Canada’s experience in the First World War as a fledgling nation. He turned to painters to do the job.

“It was an interesting time within art. Modernism and abstract art were competing with more traditional views of art and leading to an extraordinary number of talented artists producing extraordinary works,” says Dr. Laura Brandon, curator of war art at the Canadian War Museum. “And when the war broke out, it produced a subject these artists could attack and look for meaning and document it as well.”

The First World War produced 1,000 pieces of art. However, plans for a memorial art gallery or even a special building in Ottawa to house the pieces never materialized and Aitken lost interest in the program.

When the Second World War began, Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner to Great Britain, took up the cause of war art. Massey was unsuccessful in implementing the program until late 1940 when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King approved the program and Major C.P. Stacey ran the program.

In WWI, the government commissioned paintings and accepted what was painted. In WWII, artists proposed their subjects.

“The [WWII] paintings are rather pragmatic and documentary. They don’t take sides or show bias or reflect any individual viewpoints the artists might have had,” says Brandon.

At the end of WWII, the program was disbanded only to rise again in 1968 as the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artist Program.

“The National Gallery wanted to record the Canadian military’s experience during the Cold War and peacetime,” explains Brandon. “The army was involved in the Suez Crisis and doing some international things. The artists went to their camps but also overseas.”

However in 1995, CAFCAP was cut, with the military preferring to finance soldiers’ housing and not art programs. But in June of 2001, the Canadian Forces Artists Program was reborn, but only as a pilot project, sending three artists to Afghanistan.

CFAP began when Chief of Defense Staff General Maurice Baril met with various artists who expressed an interest in participating.

“The big difference is that, not only are contemporary artists such as painters and sculptors included, but also musicians and authors,” says Andre Levesque, an official with CFAP.

A pilot project was needed because it had been such a long time since CAFCAP was cancelled. The Canadian Forces would need to re-establish protocols for dealing with issues such as transportation and artists also needed to understand their role with the forces. According to Levesque, the pilot project was very successful and information packages were sent to artists who indicated an interest. However, not many artists will be going overseas. Instead, they will travel to domestic bases and local ships.

It was obvious that Canada’s history would have to be recorded; however, Canada did not send historians into the field to record history. They sent artists.

“War is a series of powerful events or experiences that transcends any ability to describe it. So we use all the tools we have to understand what it is,” says University of Calgary Art Professor Geoffrey Simmins. “We use art because we make the mistake in thinking photographs capture things. They capture parts of things. But I wonder if art just doesn’t go for the essence.”

Artists were given free reign in their subjects, and whether they painted highly disturbing images or critical reflections, they were interpreting what was happening.

“If you weren’t telling them what to paint, they were painting pretty depressing things,” says Simmins. “This guy [Frank] Varley, he wasn’t a guy that you wanted to sit beside in the trenches for very long.”

Like many of the soldiers, the artists were affected by their experience. During WWII, Alex Colville was in his twenties when he traveled to Europe.

“Colville’s style didn’t change but I think he was fundamentally affected by the war,” says Simmins. “He’s got a very thoughtful and very deep meaning to his art, and I think that took place because of his experience. He was looking at all these dead people in German concentration camps. He became convinced of the importance of using art to talk about serious things.”

According to Brandon, there was a marked shift between WWI and WWII artwork.

“The First World War took place in a very highly emotional context. It was the first time millions and millions of people had died. It was a horrendous event. In the Second World War, people knew world war would result in massive deaths. They were also not as keen as they had been in the First World War to try and find meaning in it. It was something that had to be done to keep the world free.”

While ACAD instructor William MacDonnell was not officially part of the CAFCAP, he was invited by the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry to travel with them to Croatia. And unlike some of the WWI and WWII artists, his experience was not emotional–even though MacDonnell felt a sense of amazement.

“I was amazed people can do this for six months on and six months off,” says MacDonnell. “For example, we were with a group of engineers at one point. They were doing de-mining work. Everywhere they went, an ambulance followed them. The strain must be quite bad.”

MacDonnell notes he stayed much longer than most journalists who just flew into the region for one story. Perhaps he sees things differently as a result. Another war artist, Allan Harding McKay, expresses similar sentiments.

“Artists have a particular subjective agenda,” says McKay, who was the last official Canadian war artist until 2001 when the pilot project began. “The way they contemplate what experience they’re in, the way they transform that experience into imagery which is not driven by the media industry. It’s driven by their subjectivity as artists. Also, the amount of time an artist might spend with a project goes much beyond a photo opportunity. It does inform the imagery and an observer’s reaction in a different way then if we knew it was part of the news industry continuum.”

McKay travelled to Somalia in March of 1993. Aside from traditional sketching and painting, McKay used his video camera to capture images of the Canadian Forces’ experiences.

He was there six days. He shot an hour and a half of footage. And he is still working on it nine years later.

Along side his various paintings, sketches and video installations, his work inspired a play in conjunction with the Calgary theatre group One Yellow Rabbit. Somalia Yellow dealt with his video art and also the death of a Somali boy by the hand of a Canadian soldier Master Corporal Clayton Matchee. Some questioned why McKay would spend so much time on just one aspect.

“In a sense the question was ‘it was one life.’ That’s what war is. It’s one life, by one life, by one life,” says McKay. “It was an important question. The Canadian context was that we lost our innocence in relationship to our notion of the use of the military. Even in humanitarian effort, these misdeeds had happened.”

To some, sending artists to the war is inefficient when cameras can capture thousands of images with less difficulties than paintings. However, the point of sending the artists was to record not just the victories and triumphs, but also the emotions connected to warfare.

“It’s an accessible memory. A soldier can look at a painting about Italy and Germany and say ‘that’s what it was like for me’ even thought it wasn’t specifically about their experience,” says Brandon. “Artists generally have the ability to talk to the universal and the individual can find themselves in the universal statement. A photograph, by its definition, is oriented toward the unique and the individual.”

However, the histories of WWI and WWII are slipping away. This is partly because many of those involved or affected are passing away. Some feel the federal government has neglected honouring Canada’s dead with a proper war memorial.

Ian Gray, a retired colonel and Executive Director of the Museum of the Regiments, said the federal government was “embarrassed” into building the new war museum and currently, the war art is stored in the “basement of a bus shed” in Ottawa. He feels the art is important and should be treated as such because it recalls men and women’s sacrifices through the art’s imagery.

“Conflict and warfare are part of Canadian history,” explains Gray. “Kids don’t know the simplest fact. They have this dream that Canada is a peace-loving, do-gooding community. But it’s not true.”

While the storage area of the Canadian War Museum was the former headquarters for the Ottawa bus systems, it was perfect for the collection of guns and tanks that required a concrete floor. And within that complex is the climate-controlled, environmentally sealed art vault for the paintings. However, the art and artifacts are in two different buildings–something that will be rectified in 2005 when the new war museum will open in Ottawa on May 8, VE Day. It will have an art gallery but also be the war memorial to Canada’s fallen.

Also in 2005, the Museum of the Regiments will complete an expansion to celebrate Alberta’s centennial. The gallery will house a portion of art that is rarely seen.

In 2001, three artists travelled to Afghanistan, following a tradition started over 80 years ago. John Horton spent a week with the Naval Task Group in the Arabian Sea; Ardell Bourgeois joined the air force in Afghanistan; and McKay, no longer Canada’s last war artist, followed the army for several days. It appears the Canadian Forces have plans to extend the program to include as many artists as possible to interpret Canada’s military.

The Glenbow Museum will hold a war art exhibition March 1-June 8, 2003.

Leave a comment