War Artists

Canada's first official war art program, known as the Canadian War Memorials Fund, was established by Lords Beaverbrook (Max Aitken) and Rothermere under the aegis of the Canadian War Records Office of the Canadian Army during WWI.

Fredrick Varley, Some Day the People Will Return, 1918.
Image: \u00a9Canadian War Museum/Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/19710261-0769.
Fredrick Varley, For What?, 1917-19.
Image: \u00a9Canadian War Museum/Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/19710261-0770.
F.H. Varley, Self-Portrait
F.H. Varley, 1919, oil on canvas (courtesy NGC).

War Artists

Canada's first official war art program, known as the Canadian War Memorials Fund, was established by Lords Beaverbrook (Max Aitken) and Rothermere under the aegis of the Canadian War Records Office of the Canadian Army during WWI. From its inception in 1916 to its conclusion in 1919, the Fund hired more than 60 artists of British, Australian, Yugoslavian, Belgian and Canadian nationality to produce canvases, works on paper and sculptures depicting Canada's participation in the Great War. None of the resulting 800 works recording the farm and factory workers on the home front and the war-torn landscape of France and Flanders were exhibited during hostilities. At the war's end, however, a large portion was shown in London, New York, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

These exhibitions not only demonstrated that Canada had been the first country to establish a war art programme, but had produced a visual record of the war that was second to none. F.H. Varley's For What? was visual proof that the war artists had seen the dark underside of war. And A.Y. Jackson's Screened Road "A" showed that the war-torn, pock-marked landscape had become a valid subject for the war artist. But the value of the Canadian War Memorials Fund lay not only in the collection of works assembled. Participation in the Fund's exhibitions immediately following the war gave artists an opportunity to have their work evaluated by leading critics and gallery officials of the day. The whole experience of painting the landscape in France and Flanders, of viewing the war scenes produced by British modernists, and of having some involvement with major art critics, patrons, and gallery officials, was a crucial factor in elevating the art of the Ontario Group of Seven and its followers to national status. The Fund not only gave Canadians a memorial of their participation in the war; it gave Canadian art and artists an important place within the cultural framework of inter-war Canada.

When the Second World War broke out in the autumn of 1939, it was largely owing to the precedent of the Canadian War Memorials Fund that Canadian artists once more found themselves being pressed into service. Yet Canada did not have an official war art program until 1943. Created largely through the efforts of Vincent Massey and the director of the National Gallery of Canada, H.O. McCurry, the Canadian War Art Program came under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Defence. This time only Canadian artists serving in the armed forces were employed. On a smaller scale than the Canadian War Memorials Fund - only 32 artists were given war artist commissions - the record nevertheless included Canadian activities in N Africa, off the Alaskan coast at Kiska, in the N Atlantic and the Pacific, as well as in Canada, Britain and Europe. Unlike WWI, paintings were exhibited during the war - sometimes directly behind fighting operations - in an attempt to inform civilian and military personnel alike of Canada's contribution to the war.

Taken as a whole, the collection, totalling more than 1000 works, was less concerned with depicting the land than the men and machines. Lawren P. Harris's Tank Advance, 1944 is a wonderful evocation of the mood, the tone and the domination of the landscape by the machine. Charles F. Comfort's Dead German on the Hitler Line depicts the horrific results of war. Alex Colville's Tragic Landscape juxtaposes the terror of war with the peacefulness and tranquility of domesticated nature. The contrast of these opposing realities pervades the canvas with a feeling of angst and a sense of uncertainty that would be the hallmark of Colville's later work.

Canada commissioned no war artists to record military activities in the Korean War. This did not, however, prevent individual soldiers such as Ted Zuber from making a record of their front-line experience when they returned to Canada. Nor did the Canadian government commission artists to record peacemaking operations in the Congo. In 1967, however, the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program was established by the Department of National Defence. This organization sent civilian artists to, among other places, Vietnam, Europe and the Middle East to ensure that the representation of Canada's armed forces begun during WWI was continued. Some 2 dozen artists have contributed to date. But Robert Hyndham, Mary Leach, Ted Zuber, and Graham Wragg have not produced work the calibre of Jackson, Varley, Comfort, Harris, or Colville. Nor has the art community in Canada taken any interest in a form of art that has become unfashionable and eclipsed by the photograph and the film.

Further Reading

  • Maria Tippett, Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art and the Great War (1964); Maria Tippett, Lest We Forget (1989); R.R. Wodehouse, Checklist of the War Collections (1968).

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