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"Doing justice to history:" Canada's Second World War official art program

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The Canadian War Records (CWR), Canada's Second World War art program, produced two kinds of art: field sketches and finished paintings. When the War Artists' Committee (WAC) recommended in its instructions that the artists share in the experience of "active operations" in order to "know and understand the action, the circumstances, the environment, and the participants," it viewed this only as an information gathering and research stage. This stage, as the instructions note, existed solely to meet the committee's ultimate goal: "productions" that were "worthy of Canada's highest cultural traditions, doing justice to History, and as works of art, worthy of exhibition anywhere at any time."

The instructions charged the artists with portraying "significant events, scenes, phases and episodes in the experience of the Canadian Armed Forces," and required each of the 32 artists hired to produce a certain number of paintings. The instructions make it clear that the WAC highly valued these finished paintings. "Cartoons and sketches" were useful only, the instructions note, "for the re-creation of atmosphere, topography, and details of arms, vehicles, equipment, clothing, participants and terrain, of aircraft and ships."

Colonel A. Fortescue Duguid, director of the Army Historical Section in Ottawa and WAC member, had, since 1941, sent "service artists" (those artists hired before the official program was in place) to study the few exhibited First World War paintings in the Canadian Senate Chamber as part of their initial training. Duguid also encouraged newly-hired artists to sketch. His unique method of training service artists, from whose numbers later emerged a significant number of official war artists, included a series of timed sketching exercises to assess the artist's ability to record military subjects with "speed and accuracy in observing and recording essentials of mass, line, colour, atmosphere and attitude."

In the field, however, many sketches could be criticised for being less than useful because either the artist was too far away from the scene of action for much that was of documentary use to be depicted or, alternatively, was so closely focused on detail that the work missed the larger picture. A majority of the sketches and small watercolours swiftly executed by Canadian air force artists, for example, were done on the ground at various bases in England. Most of the naval war artists from Canada spent a great deal of their time in the relatively secure ports of Halifax or St John's. On land, shortly after the June 1944 invasion of France, a few distant puffs of smoke in a rapidly painted watercolour are all that indicate an army artist's record of this critically important battle. But there was also prejudice in favour of more traditional art among this military community, whose members simply did not view field sketches as "impressive" works of art compared to the generally far larger and more dramatic oils on canvas.

By the time the war artists settled down in their studios in London or Ottawa to paint, other factors had come to bear on what they would eventually produce. One was the influence of the official historians to whom they reported. It was not uncommon for an artist, on historical advice, to replace one vehicle for another in a composition in order to make it a more "accurate" reflection of what had happened, even though the artist's field sketch gave evidence to the contrary. The official instructions also played a role in the final compositions. "Action Episodes", defined as "Eye Witness Records" and "Reconstruction", the instructions stated, were, in order of importance, the first subjects to be tackled. To achieve this goal, Stanley and Stacey, for example, encouraged compositions that drew on the artists' own field sketches but incorporated other material including that contained in photographs and war diaries. This often resulted in scenes more dramatic than those they had actually witnessed. Inevitably, therefore, those paintings that depict action, such as Charles Comfort's The Hitler Line, are reconstructions and, to a large extent, fictional.

The paucity of combat actually witnessed by Canada's Second World War official war artists made reconstructions inevitable. None the less, while the artists may have believed themselves encouraged to paint a form of fiction, they were also complicit. Faced with field sketches and photographs that took care of the details rather than any dramatic whole, they instinctively focused on creating good compositions. Artists could also be prejudiced against scenes of action, with inevitable consequences for the works they produced. Former bomb-aimer Miller Brittain found the "sinister fairyland of a target" too disturbing (although he painted it in Night Target, Germany) and preferred to depict off-duty images such as Airmen in a British Pub.

In many ways, Canada's Second World War artists were essentially "embedded" with Canadian forces. Limited in much the same way as journalists have been during the recent war in Iraq, the artists' field sketches record only what they saw, and what they saw was a very limited slice of a much greater subject. This raises the question of whether their studio canvases and watercolours, completed many months - even years - later, and with the benefit of more knowledge, greater reflection, and understanding, convey more fully the meaning and implication of what they sketched. The evidence suggests that the long view, tempered by a wider contextual standpoint, is the more valuable testimony of events. That the canvases contain elements of imagination, rearrangement, and synthesis, which sometimes led to charges of their being "faked", should not detract from their overall value as expressions of the true experience of the Second World War. They may, in fact, represent an artistic truth and, in this sense, provide a more valuable record of the historical experience of the war than the field sketches.

Laura Brandon
Canadian War Museum

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