Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War

  • Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War
    by Amber Lloydlangston and Laura Brandon.
  • Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War
    by Maria Tippett

Reviewed by Sarah Glassford

The centenary of the First World War currently being commemorated has only further sparked our perpetual fascination with that conflict. With the eyewitnesses now gone, we are left to ponder the records and reflections they bequeathed to us. The two books reviewed here focus on their evocative and still-potent artistic legacies.

Amber Lloydlangston’s and Laura Brandon’s Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War is the souvenir catalogue of the Canadian War Museum (CWM)’s 2014 centenary exhibition of the same name, but readers need not have attended the exhibition to appreciate the catalogue. The book includes 56 high quality full colour reproductions of paintings, prints, and sketches by official war artists and ordinary soldiers. The artists came from across Canada and Britain but readers of BC Studies may particularly note “The Author at Work,” an amusing sketch by George Sharp, the architect who designed Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge and a number of buildings at UBC (18), and Charles Simpson's "Lumbering Aeroplane Spruce in BC" (44-45). The chosen works are not the most iconic Canadian First World War paintings (such as Frederick Varley’s “For What?” or Richard Jack’s “The Second Battle of Ypres”), which allows viewers to approach them with fresh eyes: we see their subjects, rather than simply icons.

Lloydlangston and Brandon group the images into four sections: Canadians at War, Tools of War, Landscapes of War, and Ruins of War. Each section and image is accompanied by a brief text passage in which the authors highlight themes and describe the artists’ experiences of, or attitudes toward, the war. We learn that Canadian troops were never portrayed as fearful, women appear only in depictions of munitions work, ruined landscapes symbolize the human costs of war, and military technologies often dwarf humans. Lloydlangston and Brandon hope Witness will “encourage Canadians to reflect on the personal and national reach” (9) of the First World War, and the catalogue seems likely to inspire that reflection. The authors maintain a light touch throughout, largely leaving it to the viewer to draw meaning from each image.

Witness is a testament to the present-day influence of two earlier projects that grappled with the legacies of the First World War: the official war art commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) beginning in 1916, and Maria Tippett’s study of the CWMF’s war art program, Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War.  Originally published in 1984, Tippett’s book has been reissued with a new introduction for the war’s centenary.

When historian Robert Craig Brown reviewed the original volume in 1985, he called it “a handsome and valuable book” in which careful research and clear writing complemented 51 black and white illustrations of CWMF war art. This assessment holds true three decades later:  Tippett (a frequent reviewer for BC Studies) uses political, artistic, and military archival sources to trace the story of Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook)’s personal crusade to create, promote, and sustain the CWMF; the political machinations, institutional agendas, and artistic currents with which the CWMF became embroiled; and the remarkable collection of First World War art it produced. Yet one senses Brown was not entirely sure what to make of Tippett’s self-described “study in cultural history” (xvii) -- political and economic history were still ascendant in 1985. Cultural history has subsequently gained traction and the book’s true importance has become clear. Art in the Service of War helped pioneer the Canadian study of “public memory” -- how the past is used in the public sphere -- and influenced (among others) Jonathan Vance’s award-winning 1997 monograph Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War.  Its influence on Witness is also obvious.

Tippett’s book concludes with a look at the reception and legacies of the CWMF’s war art program. She argues that although the art itself soon lost favour (languishing in obscurity from the 1920s to the end of the century), the program had a positive impact on Canadian art and artists themselves. The collection went uncatalogued until 1962, and the National Gallery (citing insufficient artistic merit) foisted it onto the CWM in 1971. The new 2014 introduction disappointingly covers much the same ground as the original text, but Tippett does extend her survey of the collection’s afterlife, noting that Vance and others have brought war art into the mainstream of Canadian history, while CWM war art exhibitions in 2000 and 2009 (and 2014, we might add) suggest a new recognition of its value.

First World War art by eyewitnesses has obvious historical value but, as Tippett writes, it also has the ability to move viewers today. This makes the works explored in these two centenary books “not just memorials” but also “art works of extraordinary power” (xvi).

REFERENCES

Brown, Robert Craig. 1985. Review of Art at the Service of War, by Maria Tippett, Canadian Historical Review 66 (3): 421-2.

Vance, Jonathan. 1997. Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War Vancouver:  UBC Press.

Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War
Amber Lloydlangston and Laura Brandon.
Ottawa: Canadian Museum of History, 2014. 118 pp. $9.95 paper

Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War
Maria Tippett
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013 [1984]. 136 pp. $29.95 paper

BC Studies 189 (Spring 2016)