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Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War

One hundred years ago, the art of Canadian artists and soldiers helped bring the First World War home to Canada. Today, these works resonate as visceral imagery of the unprecedented sacrifice and destruction made between 1914 and 1918.

Artists and soldiers drew and painted as members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War.

They created art to show current and future generations of Canadians the landscapes, ruins, soldiers and tools of war.

Artists made drawings and sketches of the battlefield, factories and shipyards, as well as training grounds on the home front. Later, in studios in both Canada and England, they created larger works of official art supported by Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund.

Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War is an exhibition that presents a selection of the artwork created through the experience of war — from working sketches to prints and officially commissioned canvases.

The exhibition features more than 100 works from the collections of the Canadian War Museum by 61 artists including Canadian soldiers and celebrated Canadian artists such as A. Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston, who later became members of the Group of Seven.

As Canada’s national museum of military history, the Canadian War Museum has an important role to play in marking the centenary of the First World War. The Museum’s collections are among the finest military holdings in the world, including rare vehicles, artillery, uniforms, medals, personal memoirs and more than 13,000 works in the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. This exceptional collection of war art offers Canadians a unique means of imagining and reimagining this conflict, and remembering the individuals who fought. Witness encourages Canadians to reflect on the personal and national reach of the First World War.

First Across Canada, Soon in France

The travelling exhibition Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War was created in 2014 by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

For the Museum, this exhibition marked the start of activities commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

Over the past two years Witness has travelled all across Canada and has been seen by thousands of people. The exhibition is now showing at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where it will run until January 15, 2017.

The War Museum is proud to announce that Witness will be crossing the Atlantic. The exhibition will be presented at the musée des Beaux-Arts in Arras, France, from March 15 to June 18, 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of the battles of Vimy and Arras.

Witness will then return home and resume its Canadian tour, with stops in Sarnia and Markham, Ontario, and in Calgary, Alberta.

1Canadians At War

Among the many subjects that confronted professional and amateur artists were soldiers overseas and civilians on the home front.

Both official war artists and soldier-artists portrayed Canadian military personnel as brave combatants and as wounded survivors. Notably absent, however, are images that show Canadian soldiers as victims of shell-shock or overwhelming fear.

On the home front, official war artists depicted men and women labouring to produce the ammunition and equipment required by the fighting forces. Munitions factories were one of the few First World War subjects that female artists painted and in which women are featured.

2Tools of War

During the First World War, Allied and German forces manufactured and employed a vast array of equipment. Some technologies, like aircraft and tanks, were new. Others, like artillery and machine guns, were altered to increase their lethality. Paradoxically, both forces also required traditional equipment, such as horses and other pack animals, because mud, craters and other obstacles defeated the mechanized vehicles.

Officially commissioned artists and soldier artists saw this equipment in production on the home front, in action overseas, or in ruins, its remains littering battlefields. They struggled to depict the War. Sometimes, accuracy was the priority. At other times, they chose to interpret what was before them to communicate a particular message about the war.

3Landscapes of War

Landscapes dominate Canadian art, so it is no surprise that First World War soldiers and artists painted battlefields.

Depictions of the French and Belgian countryside, where Canadians had fought, are illuminated by shellfire, enveloped in smoke, torn up by craters and trenches, and peopled by fighting soldiers.

Artists shared their impressions with those at home through public exhibitions and through personal letters. They exposed Canadians to the conditions soldiers faced, and highlighted their bravery and common purpose on the battlefield. To a large degree, artists omitted the more gruesome realities of war. A hundred years ago, blasted trees and, in some cases, poppy fields symbolized war’s human cost.

4Ruins of War

War artists, officially commissioned professionals and soldiers alike, depicted war’s impact on homes, villages, towns and churches. Some also painted the abandoned French châteaux in which they were billeted.

Artists seemed to see a tragic beauty in the devastation they encountered. For many, ruined buildings symbolized war’s ravages on human beings and represented the dead they rarely painted.

One hundred years later, the reluctance of artists to depict human carnage may seem overly cautious, but most had no desire to shock. Their respect for family, friends and dead comrades conditioned their work. Depicting destroyed buildings was a gentler means of conveying to private and public audiences the enormous human cost of war.