Canada

The Art of War

The Canadian War Museum mounts an ambitious exhibition of paintings that have not been seen for decades

Bruce Wallace February 14 2000
Canada

The Art of War

The Canadian War Museum mounts an ambitious exhibition of paintings that have not been seen for decades

Bruce Wallace February 14 2000

The Art of War

Canada

The Canadian War Museum mounts an ambitious exhibition of paintings that have not been seen for decades

Bruce Wallace

Rebecca Renner clearly remembers the morning last year when she gently swabbed away the veil of dirt and grime that clouded Quebec impressionist painter Maurice Cullen's massive 1918 battlefield scene The Cambrai Road. Cullen's canvas portrayed a blasted First World War landscape of men and mud and rubble, and Renner, an Ottawa conservator, dabbed carefully at the brush strokes with a cotton tip to get them clean. “I had my face pressed close to the canvas to make sure I wouldn’t scrape any paint away,” Renner recalls of her work on one of the 60 or so paintings she helped restore for an ambitious new exhibition of Canadian war art opening in Ottawa on Feb. 11. “Suddenly I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a dead body there.’ ” Renner let out a cry and

recoiled in horror. “Cullen wanted to surprise you,” she says. “He wanted your eyes to come across that body sticking out of the mud just as you would if you were walking by.”

Along with 71 other works, Cullens grim vista of death is part of the exhibition called Canvas of War, which will be on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull until Jan. 7, 2001, before leaving the capital for a North American tour next year. Many of the paintings have not been shown in public for generations. They were scattered across Ottawa in various storage rooms, stuffed into the recesses of national memory. But the collection includes works by some of Canadas greatest artists: Group of Seven painters A. Y. Jackson and Frederick Varley from the First World War, Alex Colville and Charles Comfort from the Second. Their reemergence now is the cornerstone of the tiny Canadian War

Museums attempt to prove the country’s military history can tug the public imagination, as it asks Ottawa for up to $58 million to build a new museum.

The collection itself has a remarkable history. The First World War paintings were commissioned by Max Aitken, the newspaper baron who later became Lord Beaverbrook and who created the first corps of war artists virtually through sheer personal insistence. The first paintings of Canadians in action were done by Europeans. But by 1917, Jackson—who had been wounded a year earlier as a soldier—arrived in Europe as the first Canadian war artist. Others followed to paint a war that by then had long lost any allure of glory. Works such as Varley’s wrenching For What?, with its bodies piled in a horse cart awaiting burial, captured its horror.

The Canadians mosdy shunned painting in the older Euro-

Canada

Instructed to record the war as accurately ;

pean style, which tended to represent war as a heroic tradition. Jackson dismissed the old school as the “futility of fine craftsmanship used without passion.” Instead, the Canadians experimented with the modernism that later became a hallmark of the Group of Seven. “What we are revealing is the role of war in developing Canadian art,” says Laura Brandon, the quiet but enthusiastic curator of the exhibit. “We have created a national myth that the art of the Group of Seven sprang from the Canadian land. But you can see elements of the destruction and the barrenness of the bombarded Western Front in their great landscape paintings. Ignoring those origins is a disservice to our art history.”

Jackson seemed to share that opinion at the time. H “That this collection will influence contemporary art § in Canada seems obvious enough,” he remarked § when the First World War paintings were first exhib| ited in Toronto in 1920. That show was well| received, but the collection was soon packed away f and forgotten. Politicians fended off Beaverbrooks 5 dream of building a new war memorial art gallery in Ottawa to permanently display the works. “We have a historical tendency to turn away from wars once they’re over, not to celebrate them,” notes Victor Suthren, a former director of the war museum. “Instead, we see ourselves as compassionate about the suffering war causes.”

The Second World War was not set to canvas by Canadians until Ottawa finally enlisted 31 artists in 1943. They were instructed to record the war with as much attention to accuracy as possible, though many found ways to leave a more creative legacy. They were also brave. Orville Fisher sketched on the French beaches on D-Day. Colville followed the troops into

the liberated concentration camp at Belsen and emerged to paint nightmarish visions of its obscenity.

But public interest was muted. Both war collections were transferred to the National Gallery in 1946, where they remained mostly in storage. By 1971, at the height of antiVietnam War fervour, the gallery simply gave the war museum all but a few pieces. There were mutterings in high art circles that the art was bad. War museum officials, like its current aggressive director Jack Granatstein, counter that the collection

Qssible, many artists found ways to leave a much more creative legacy

was a victim of political correctness in a country where the cultural establishment has been uncomfortable with the mere subject.

With this exhibit, Granatstein is gambling that attitude is waning. Carefully, the museum has weighted Canvas of War towards paintings showing the bleakness of war. But will it fly? “The challenge facing the museum is whether this war art will seem as obsolete as a baroque string quartet to

a generation raised on video images,” says Suthren. On the other hand, the TV images from this winter s Chechen war recall early 20th-century newsreels—flattened buildings and endless mud. It is a reminder that war is one of the few constants of the ages. These paintings represent the Canadian experience with it, showing, as Jackson wrote: “Just the stark naked fact that war is here, bereft of all glory, and that its aftermath is misery and filth.” El

I There have been mutterings in high art circles that the art was bad—but officials at the Canadian War Museum, like its current aggressive director Jack Granatstein, say that the collection was a victim of political correctness in a country where the cultural establishment has been uncomfortable with the mere subject of war