Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War

That tension is palpable in an impressive travelling exhibition from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Written by Nancy Payne

July 28, 2014

War art is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it runs the risk of glorifying war or making it attractive through the skill of the artist. On the other, it is an unparalleled tool for portraying conflict and its aftermath.

That tension is palpable in an impressive travelling exhibition from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The show encompasses 54 First World War sketches and paintings from a Canadian perspective, ranging from official works commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund and executed by the likes of future Group of Seven members Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, and A. Y. Jackson, to those created by ordinary soldiers in the trenches and prisoner of war camps.

The first image, Tommy, by gunner and McGill student Ross Wiggs, is a cheery, even cartoony one, depicting a smiling, apple-cheeked young man who looks like he should be in high school, not wearing khaki. The exhibition progresses through four theme areas: Canadians at War, Tools of War, Ruins of War and Landscapes of War.

Just a little farther along, the tone changes, and it’s impossible not to be transfixed by the face of 20-year-old Sergeant Tommy Holmes, winner of the Victoria Cross, in a painting by Ernest Fosbery. It’s equally hard not to see a world of sadness in his eyes, which look off to the side, not meeting our gaze.

Sir Sam Hughes, the bombastic, unstable war leader who desperately wanted to be thought a military man got his wish, at least on canvas. Military artist R. Caton Woodville — no doubt under pressure — portrays his subject on a horse and looking like a field commander, a position Hughes never held.

Paintings of a German pilot falling from his burning plane in a dogfight, of a tank rolling through a hellish battlefield, and of the camouflage-painted Olympic arriving in Halifax harbour need no words to underscore the newly mechanized and increasingly deadly nature of the Great War. Neither could words adequately convey the impact of those weapons and the years of fighting, shown here with tremendous power in ruined houses and town squares, as well as landscapes of stark and ominous beauty.

Witness manages to tell the story of Canada’s war without resorting to jingoism. There is both honour and squalor here; desolation and determination; ruin and hope, all presented simply and powerfully, leaving visitors to draw their own conclusions.

For more information or to see if the exhibit will be in your area, visit the website of the Canadian War Museum.

You can also view images from the War Museum's First World War art collection and see a special online collection of the work of sketch artist William Redver Stark at Library and Archives Canada.

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