Monday, 19 May 2014

Witness (part two)

In part one I wrote about the painting exhibit called Transformations at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. It is dedicated to a comparison of two men's views, War artists, on the First World War, AY Jackson and Otto Dix.

The other exhibit running now at the Canadian War Museum is WITNESS. It is a different exhibit made up of large canvases and small sketches, all done by soldier-artists, many of the smaller works was done for family back home in Canada to illustrate often in a comic fashion life in the trenches. At the time the only means of communication with Canada was by postal service and newspapers carried the news of the day, but in rural Canada the only people who read the newspapers were the well educated, so the letters and littles sketches from the Western Front were the only means of keeping the family informed of what was going on. Soldiers were careful to not alarm their parents or siblings, so the sketches are in general amusing or show mundane aspects of life. Some are quite beautiful and they are meant as much as a memento as information on what life was like, very valuable today, 100 years later to help us understand the life of Canadians at the Front.  There is often a quiet dignity about them, values were different, maybe even sometime romantic in that early XX th century way. We have their names, Captain George Sharp, Thurston Topham, Alan Beddoe who in 1965 worked with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson on the final design of the new Canadian Flag, and many others.

John McQueen Moyes, Cleaning up,preparing for duty, 13th Battalion, Royal Canadian Highlanders

The larger canvases some of them are giant 4 X 5 meters were first executed as small sketches by artists of the Canadian War Memorial Fund, people like Alfred Munnings, Alfred Bastien, C.W. Jefferys, David Milnes, Daniel Sherrin, S.Chatwood Burton, Arthur Lismer, Arthur Nantel, Frederick Varley and many others. Once back in London they would go on to transfer the sketches and notes to large oil canvases we see today.

Witness as the name implies is a live archival record of the war done by eye-witnesses, participants in those battles. The art is more poignant because some of the soldier-artists did not make it back, others were gravely wounded. This is their legacy as Canadians.

Gyrth Russell, White Chateau, Liévin 

Canadian soldiers repairing railway tracks surrounded by the corpses of dead German soldiers.
by Innes Meo 

Our visitors to both exhibits have been numerous, many are families, some veterans, students or adults. There is a lot of interests and questions, unfortunately I find that the Second World War (1939-1945) often overshadows the First World War. People have better memories of more recent events and the Great War is passing into history with no one alive to speak about it. Context has to be given, history explained, 100 years is far away for too many people and their knowledge of history is sketchy at best. Though many leave far better informed afterwards with a better appreciation for the events. Some visitors had a great uncle who participated and they recall stories told. With the average age of Veterans of the Second World War around 90 years of age now, it won't be long before that conflict also pass into distant memory. Luckily we still have some volunteers at the CWM who served in that conflict and they are our eyewitness. They are often useful because they remember family members talking to them about events of the Great War and can relate stories. 

The War Art Program continues today and is now under the hospices of the Government of Canada, we no longer have the spontaneous sketching and painting we saw with the Canadian War Memorial Fund of 1914-1918.  The Government now wants purpose driven art serving a political aim, it can be a little stale and no criticism can be implied or suggested as was the case in the past when artists painted what they saw, despite the fact that the government of Sir Robert Borden tried to suppress it afterwards.  If you have a chance to come and visit the CWM in Ottawa this summer please do, the shows run until 21 September.