A Conversation Across Centuries: Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War

By Robyn Jeffrey on August 20, 2014

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S. Chatwood Burton, The Fall (1918). © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19850327-024

The lines are energetic. A series of squiggles and quick dashes that depict what could easily be mistaken for a campsite. But it’s a 1917 sketch of hospital tents near Vimy Ridge, the site of bloody fighting during the First World War.

Drawn by soldier-artist and chaplain Captain Geoffrey d’Easum, it’s one of the revealing and often direct works in Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War. Currently on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Witness explores how Canadians—both official war artists and ordinary soldiers—captured their First World War experiences in art.  

“We can’t go back a hundred years and meet the people who were there during the battles of the First World War,” says the War Museum’s Dr. Laura Brandon, the lead historian for Witness. “But we can through these drawings,” she adds, referring to d’Easum’s Vimy Ridge from Souchez Valley and other works in the exhibition. “They transport us back to a time and place in a way that is close—in some respects—to having a conversation with somebody who was there.”

Another soldier-artist who was there is Captain George Sharp. An architect by training, Sharp’s whimsical self-portrait, The Author at Work, shows him in a bunker surrounded by rum-drinking rats up to no good. Like many soldier-artists, Sharp used art to communicate a message to his family. “This is the kind of image you could send home which said both, ‘Yes, I am in Europe; I am at war, but I’m okay,’” explains Dr. Brandon. “In the final analysis, they also act as a record of an experience that the artist wanted to share.”

Indeed, both soldier-artists and the official artists working for the Canadian War Memorials Fund created art that was about “bringing the war back home to Canada,” says Dr. Brandon. Not surprisingly, the images of that experience are, at times, brutal. In his painting The Sunken Road, future Group of Seven artist Frederick Varley depicts the deceased members of a German gun crew. Varley, who became an official war artist in 1918, felt that people in Canada must see what war was really like to begin to appreciate its horrors. 

Others, such as Varley’s Group of Seven compatriot A. Y. Jackson—himself a wounded soldier who became an official war artist—is on record as choosing not to paint the awful things he saw. “He primarily reconstituted them in landscape iconography,” says Dr. Brandon. Jackson’s painting of the ruined French village of Riaumont is one of several moving landscapes in Witness that speaks powerfully to the destruction and aftermath of war.

The exhibition also includes two works from the National Gallery of Canada collection, both by David Milne. Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge and Wrecked Tanks outside Monchy-le-Preux, 24 May 1919 were both painted after the war for the Canadian War Records. Like Jackson, however, Milne was also a soldier during the war, producing evocative scenes of camp life.

Other standouts in the exhibition include coast-to-coast depictions of the home-front experience: Arthur Lismer’s painting of Halifax Harbour, showing the ship Olympic with Returned Soldiers; Montreal artist Mabel May’s painting of a munitions factory, Women Making Shells; and Charles W. Simpson’s, Lumbering Aeroplane Spruce in B.C. The latter, a massive canvas that Dr. Brandon compares to a “theatre set” framed by trees, hasn’t been publicly displayed in decades.

The most unforgettable work, though, is a much smaller painting. The Fall shows a German pilot leaping from a burning aircraft, his raised arms echoing the flames. It is, as Dr. Brandon says, a “chilling” work, as we know pilots were not issued with parachutes. Painted by soldier-artist, S. Chatwood Burton, The Fall belonged to Canadian Air Vice Marshal, Clifford McEwen. However, it’s not known whether the incident depicted is something McEwen witnessed, nor why he kept the painting in his personal collection. “If anything, this underlines the complexity that is the First World War, when there is no one left to speak to it directly,” says Brandon. “You can only talk to what is there in front of you.”

Prompting reflection and conversation, Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa until September 21, 2014, along with Transformations: A. Y. Jackson & Otto Dix.

By Robyn Jeffrey| August 20, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Robyn Jeffrey

Robyn Jeffrey

Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.

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