The Canadian War Museum mounts an ambitious exhibition of paintings that have not been seen for
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 dean. "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, Cullen's 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 Canada's 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 Museum's 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 mostly shunned painting in the older European 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. "That this collection will
influence contemporary art in Canada seems obvious enough," he remarked
when the First World War paintings were first exhibited in Toronto in 1920. That
show was well-received, but the collection was soon packed away and forgotten.
Politicians fended off Beaverbrooks 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 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."
By Bruce Wallace
Source: Maclean's, 02/14/2000, Vol. 113 Issue 7, p22, 4p