Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War

Frederick Varley, The Sunken Road (detail), 1919 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0771

September 17 - January 15, 2017    |    Regular Exhibition

Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War examines how Canadians used art to communicate and commemorate their First World War experiences at home and overseas. Some, like future Group of Seven members A. Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley, were official war artists commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund to document the conflict. Others, like Frederick Clemesha, Thurston Topham and Vivian Cummings, were ordinary soldiers who made small drawings to send home to loved ones, or whose works were acquired by the Fund after the war.

The Museum’s Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, one of the largest such collections in the world, contains about 2,500 paintings, drawings, sketches, prints and posters from the First World War. The exhibition features over 50 works of art by both official artists and ordinary soldiers. Most of the art by ordinary soldiers has never been seen before. The works are divided into the four thematic sections described below, which can be viewed in any order.

Canadians at War
The war offered professional and amateur artists opportunities to capture impressions of soldiers overseas and civilians on the home front. Official war artists and soldier-artists portrayed Canadian soldiers both as brave combatants and as wounded survivors. On the home front, official war artists depicted men and women labouring to produce the ammunition and equipment required by the fighting forces.

One of this section’s highlights is Women Making Shells (1919) by Mabel May, one of the few female commissioned war artists. The painting depicts women and men working in a Canadian armaments factory. Munitions factories were one of the few First World War subjects that female artists painted in which women are featured. Another notable work in this section is Sergeant T.W. Holmes, V.C. (1918), painted by Ernest Fosbery, one of Canada’s first official war artists, around the time Sergeant Holmes earned his Victoria Cross.

Tools of War
The world’s first mechanized war spurred the development of a massive array of technology. Fighter planes and tanks were entirely new, while machine guns and artillery were made more lethal. At the same time, some traditional equipment, such as pack animals, remained in use. Whether new or old, the tools of war provided fodder for many artists. Works in this section depict the building of airplanes and ships, tanks in action and in ruins, and several scenes showing horses on the battlefield.

In British Tank in Action (1917), soldier-artist Daniel Sherrin portrays his memory of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, during which tanks were used for the first time. In Lumbering Aeroplane Spruce in B.C. (1919), official war artist Charles Simpson shows the harvesting of spruce for aircraft production in British Columbia. Simpson first painted in England, before dwindling resources forced the Fund to assign him to a subject closer to home.

Ruins of War
Homes, churches and villages destroyed in the fighting served as powerful symbols for many artists, who found not only a tragic beauty in the devastation, but also a gentler way to communicate the true carnage. This section includes three works by artists who each illustrated the ruins of the 16th century Church of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, near Vimy Ridge in France, and four works depicting the destruction of the Belgian city of Ypres.

Gyrth Russell’s White Château, Liévin (1918) highlights the devastating cost of war through a destroyed building and an injured soldier. Cyril Barraud’s First Glimpse of Ypres (around 1919) shows a plume of smoke, perhaps from an artillery shell, rising above the distant, rubble-strewn city of Ypres, Belgium.

Landscapes of War
Landscapes, a favourite subject of Canadian artists, feature prominently in the art of both official war artists and soldier-artists. Instead of bucolic scenes, however, they painted the European countryside as a battlefield, scarred by shell holes and trenches, illuminated by shellfire at night and populated by fighting soldiers. Artists sought to show the horrific conditions Canadians faced on the front, and highlighted their bravery on the battlefield.

In Mud Road to Passchendaele (around 1917), soldier-artist Douglas Culham communicates the chaos of the Battle of Passchendaele by painting men and horses transporting ammunition through billowing smoke. In A Shell Hole (painted between 1917 and 1919), official Canadian war artist William Beatty paints the aftermath of a massive explosion. 

Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War is a travelling exhibition developed by the Canadian War Museum. It is on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery from September 17, 2016 to January 15, 2017.


Banner image:

Frederick Varley, The Sunken Road, 1919  © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0771