Sunday, 18 May 2014

Transformations 1914-2014

I started a few weeks ago to work at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Capitale, as an interpreter for the exhibit of paintings of the Canadian War Memorial Fund of Max Aitken Lord Beaverbrook.

Lord Beaverbrook who was the first Press Baron in London was immensely wealthy, a Canadian from New Brunswick, he moved to London and was elected to Parliament and became a Minister in the British Government. Canadians could do that then, since we were British Subjects and part of the Empire.

When the Great War started in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war and 10% of our population went to war some 650,000 men. We also produced the ammunition for Britain and for ourselves and supplied Britain with millions of tons of food to avoid famine in the British Isles.

Canadian Soldier called a Tommy, on his shoulder a red patch and a blue half moon, insignia indicating he was a Canadian Army soldier 14th Battalion, also on his sleeve a yellow bar indicating he was wounded in action. This poster was designed by Gunner Ross Wiggs of Montreal. In 1969 Wiggs described this cartoon as the humorous side of the Great War.

This enormous Canadian contribution needed to be remembered and so Lord Beaverbrook took it upon himself to set up a group of 116 artists who would be on the battlefields of the Western Front (Belgium-French border) to document the Canadian soldiers at war. Some 400 paintings were produced and they are now today at the National Gallery of Canada and at the Canadian War Museum. It is worth noting that the Government of Sir Robert Borden was not at all interested in documenting what Canadians were doing in Europe.

My job is to help visitors to the exhibit understand what they are looking at, explain who the painters were and how they got involved with the program, I also have to explain the different schools of painting and the evolution painters went through as part of their experience of the horrors of the Front. Something difficult for us to understand one hundred years later.

One exhibit (the other is called Witness, I will write about it later) Transformations features two artists of very different character and origins, one is Alexander Young Jackson better known as AY Jackson of the Group of Seven Fame, the other is the famous German Artist of the XXth Century Otto Dix. The two men were very different, Jackson was from Montreal and spent his life painting, at first he went to Europe, France and Italy to study the European style of painting and many of his landscapes were then in the Impressionist style favoured by Claude Monet.

Otto Dix was from Gera a small town near Dresden in Saxony. Born in a poor worker family, Dix loved the countryside and was troubled by the rapid changes brought upon by industrialisation. He was fascinated by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, he was also influenced by modern artist like Klimt, Van Gogh. By 1913 he was following the Futurist and Expressionist movements in painting, Ludwig Meidner with his dramatic apocalyptic paintings was a source of inspiration.

Of the two painters I find Dix far more complex than Jackson. There is a certain maturity in his paintings and his thinking totally lacking in Jackson who was painting, charming pictures to use his own words on his work of the period between 1882-1914.

Dix sought to depict the transformation of society through the violence done to the Earth and the countryside around him and equated this to the violence done to women. Mother Earth, women, regeneration, life death cycle is present in his paintings and sketches. Did Otto Dix oppose the war or the motives of going to war, that is not clear, he did say that he joined the German Army to experience death at a close range. Dix at age 22 was put in charge of a machine gun which at the time was a brand new weapon and could with its spray of bullets kill hundreds of men in a few minutes.

From 1914 onwards we see how his battlefield experience has affected-transformed him. He wants to believe in regeneration of life. Whereas Jackson who joined the Canadian Army will fight on the Front but is injured in 1915 convalescing in London he meets with Lord Beaverbrook who offers him the opportunity of returning to the Front not as a soldier but as an artist. Jackson will also meet with Paul Nash and will change gradually his style of painting to a more Surrealist and Symbolist Style leaving behind the earlier Impressionist style he followed. However Jackson made clear that he would not paint like Lismer or Varley depicting the horrors of war. He preferred to do landscapes trying to convey a message of desolation and emptiness created by the bombardment and battles.

Jackson presents a reflection on violence and on societies at war with each other, a more subtle approach to how he viewed the Great War. The landscapes shows trees like a chorus of Greek mourners, there is something terribly disturbing about the skeletons of trees where you should see green fields covered in flowers with great leafy trees, you see emptiness thus accurately portraying the violence of this first industrial war. In a sense I prefer the work of Canadian artist Frederick Varley 1881-1969 or Arthur Lismer 1885-1969 who have no such reticence to show things as they were and ask through their paintings direct often aggressive questions of the viewer. They also reflect as the years wore on the anger in Canada of Canadians who by 1918 wanted to know what this war was all about. Canada had 66,000 war dead and 175,000 gravely wounded, a very high social cost for a country with a population of only 7 million people at the time. In fact Canada had more war dead than the USA who joined the war in early 1918.

After the war both Jackson and Dix return home. AY Jackson is now an established artists and will help create the Group of Seven which will be active in Canada from 1919 to 1935, the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg north of Toronto is the repository of their collective work. In this sense Canada owes Lord Beaverbrook an immense debt, because of his idea to finance and promote Canadian artists, he helped Canadian painters and other artists to come of age and gain valuable experience which propelled forward Canadian art scene.

Dix not so lucky returns to a broken country, the German Empire has collapsed, the Kaiser left for exile in Holland, the economy is gripped by hipper inflation, millions of veterans are without money or work, many are horribly disfigured and maimed. On the German Art scene a new movement DaDaist or painting of the absurd is all the rage, Germans are searching for a way out in a climate of near Civil War. This is where the National Socialist Ideology will take root gradually, promising work, a stable economy, industrial development and to make Germany a great country again. The promise of work and social reform is seductive and crafted carefully by Hitler and the men around him. He promises the reform of Socialism without the excesses of Communism now all too apparent in Russia. Dix like many German artists will resist the Siren call of the Nazi Party. He becomes a professor at the Art Academy of Dresden a post he will occupy until 1933. As he becomes more and more famous he is setting himself up as a known opponent of Nazism and the ideology which sought to impose on German society one artistic style and one school of thought on Culture, Education, etc.

Otto Dix, Shell burst in battle,  

Things are not much better in Canada in 1919, socialist causes and Trade Unions are now everywhere, there is lack of work and inflation. Veterans are often left to fend for themselves or families are asked to care for them. The Borden Government is unable to answer the social demands  to rapidly changing country, also transformed by the Great War. The great Winnipeg General Strike will happen in May 1919. The Government of Sir Robert Borden panics fearing Bolchevism and orders the RCMP to shoot on the strikers. Canadians are asking what was this war all about and general dissatisfaction grips the Country. Borden a man of another age is completely overwhelmed by this new Canada, the old order he knew of the ruling class who dominated national discourse was gone.

The great Canadian War Memorial collection of Lord Beaverbrook is a burden for the Borden government who does not know what to do with 400 paintings depicting Canadians at war. Borden does not like them and tells his wife in a letter. They are put in the care of the National Gallery in a storage facility where they will remain for 90 years. The Museum to house them will never be built despite Lord Beaverbrook providing plans and drawings.

Despite this important artistic legacy Canadians will not know about their experience and officially we are told of the British, French and American contribution as if ours was not that important. Transformations the exhibit wants to set the tone and correct perceptions so that the Canadian public can see what our ancestors did and how the Great War forever changed Canada from a social point of view from rural to urban, women by the thousands joining the workforce giving them a new role and a new voice politically with the introduction of the vote in 1917 and for Canada political independence as a country.

This citation from Paul Nash who influenced the work of AY Jackson is appropriate for the Exhibit Transformations.
He wrote in a letter to his wife in November 1917; I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.

A.Y. Jackson,  A Copse, evening 1918.  Beaverbrook Canadian War Art Collection.  


  1. I still think you should read Timothy Findley's "The War" to hear his gruesome slant of how it was to be in WWI and be Canadian too.

    1. I will look it up. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. Very, very interesting, Laurent! Thank you!

  3. This is fascinating. Thanks so much.