WAS IT ART OR PROPAGANDA?
New book looks at a public art project that helped Canada establish its national identity
By Brian Brennan
It was one of the largest public art projects in Canadian history. Between 1942 and 1963, a series of more than 100 silkscreen prints by 54 of the country’s top artists – including members of the Group of Seven and their associates – were shipped overseas to military barracks, embassies and galleries, and also made available to schools, libraries and government offices across the country. The prints offered a romantic vision of Canada as a land of wide open spaces; as the untamed frontier that dominated national myths before people began looking at the country through urban eyes.
The project was sponsored by the National Gallery of Canada and spearheaded by Group of Seven members A.Y. Jackson – who came up with the idea – and A.J. Casson, who worked as a commercial artist for the Toronto graphic arts firm, Sampson-Matthews, which produced the high-quality prints.
"Peace River Bridge"
A.Y. Jackson, "Peace River Bridge," c. 1944, screenprint (Sampson-Matthews / National Gallery of Canada), 30” x 40”.
After it was phased out in the 1960s, the project was quickly forgotten. The former head librarian of the National Gallery, Murray Waddington, has said he couldn’t find a single Sampson-Matthews print in the gallery’s archives in the early 1990s. But then Joyce Zemans, an art history professor at York University in Toronto, published several influential articles about the Sampson-Matthews prints in the Journal of Canadian Art History. She suggested the project was largely responsible for shaping how Canadians understood their country’s art. “It also established the Group of Seven and landscape painting as the sine qua non of Canadian art, creating the lens or aesthetic filter through which Canadian identity would be defined,” she wrote. The National Gallery went on to round up as much of the Sampson-Matthews series as it could; it now has more than 80 of the original prints.
Photo credit: Trevor Mills.
Lawren S. Harris, "Maligne Lake," c. 1944, screenprint (Sampson-Matthews / National Gallery of Canada), 30” x 40”.
These days, the Sampson-Matthews project is receiving renewed attention thanks to the efforts of Ian Sigvaldason, the owner and director of the Pegasus Gallery of Canadian Art on B.C.’s Salt Spring Island. With co-author Scott Steedman, Sigvaldason has produced a sumptuous book, Art for War and Peace: How a Great Public Art Project Helped Canada Discover Itself. It was slated for release in January by Vancouver’s Read Leaf Books, selling for about $60 a copy. Sigvaldason is also working on a plan to tour the prints to venues across Canada, allowing older people to renew their acquaintance with images they may remember from childhood, while also introducing the prints to younger generations.
- See related story SECRET HANDSHAKE: Douglas Coupland and the Sampson-Matthews prints.
The Sampson-Matthews project started as a Second World War initiative. In 1942, Jackson and several of his fellow artists discussed contributing to the war effort by creating landscapes for what Globe and Mail art critic Pearl McCarthy called “posters of a superior sort” for display in army camps. The idea, McCarthy wrote at the time, was to give the soldiers “something fine to look at,” something to remind them what they were fighting for. Jackson had served in the trenches of France during the First World War and remembered how drab and soulless the army living quarters and mess halls were. He thought decorating them with images of home would boost troop morale. Original art was out of the question because it might never be seen again. So Jackson suggested sending prints instead.
Purchased 1928 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Family of Lawren S Harris, Photo ©NGC.
Lawren S. Harris, "Maligne Lake," Jasper Park, 1924, oil on canvas, 48” x 60”.
The project was an instant success. By July 1943, more than 7,500 silkscreens on stiff cardboard had been distributed to camps and army hospitals across Canada and overseas. For many young soldiers, it was their first exposure to Canadian art. “Everything turned out even far beyond best hopes,” reported McCarthy. On the home front, schools, banks and other non-military institutions asked the Department of National Defence to make the prints, which measured 30 inches by 40 inches, available to civilian organizations. Meanwhile, the British War Office ordered 2,000 prints for the army, and the Royal Air Force another thousand. By war’s end, they had been sent to American military bases in Newfoundland, to prison camps in Germany, and to government offices in Russia. “The prints are to be found in almost every quarter of the Allied world,” the National Gallery reported at the time. “It is difficult to over-emphasize the value of this publicity for Canada.”
Thirty-six designs, commissioned by the National Gallery but financed by private companies, were produced during the war years. Another 81 were added after the war, when the project gathered steam as a peacetime initiative. A who’s who of Canada’s greatest artists, including Emily Carr, David Milne, Charles Comfort, Walter Phillips and B.C. Binning, were included. By the mid-1950s, the prints were everywhere. “What began as Jackson’s relatively simple plan to reproduce some paintings to send overseas ended up as the single most effective promotion of Canadian art to date,” wrote Jackson’s biographer, Wayne Larsen. “No longer did people have to visit art galleries – now they were exposed to the images in the course of their everyday lives.” The momentum continued into the early 1960s, after which changing tastes contributed to the program’s demise. Landscapes increasingly took a back seat to abstract expressionism and other art movements. At the same time, new national symbols were emerging, including the maple-leaf flag and the icons from Expo 67.
Sigvaldason’s interest in the prints was piqued after he noticed passing references to the project in books about Canadian art. “Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody knew where it came from, where it went, or where it expanded to,” he says. “I found that confusing and fascinating at the same time.”
He started collecting the prints and then spent more than four years putting together the 248-page book, which is replete with illustrations and essays by eight guest contributors, including Douglas Coupland, Ian Thom, Alicia Boutilier, John Libby and Bill Mayberry. Sigvaldason used Zemans’ articles as his point of departure. “Without her hard work and blessing, this would be a much slimmer, less erudite volume,” he says. Co-author Steedman, former associate publisher at Douglas & McIntyre, supplied the writing and publishing expertise that Sigvaldason lacked.
Tracking down images of prints he didn’t own was a challenge for Sigvaldason. He found some at the National Gallery and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., and several others at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. “Everybody had a few, but nobody had a full opus,” he says. Whenever he located a new print, Sigvaldason either visited the gallery or collector and had it photographed, or asked the owner for high-resolution digital photos. He also spent hours online searching for other sources. In the end, Sigvaldason had all but four of the images he wanted to reproduce in the book.
Were the prints art or just fancy posters? Art or propaganda? Pictures of pine trees or expressions of patriotism? Chocolate-box nationalism or a great populist project? “I’m not smart enough to answer that,” says Sigvaldason, who poses the questions in the book’s introduction. “I think it’s all of the above.” Debating those questions, he predicts, will keep people engaged for years to come. “Every new generation will see the project in a different way.”
The book is already generating buzz in Canadian art circles and prompting inquiries from libraries and museums. But the big job of getting the prints out on tour is still ahead. “It’s like eating an elephant,” says Sigvaldason. “How do you do it? One bite at a time.”
Nothing is truly Canadian unless there’s a debate over regional representation. The Sampson-Matthews prints were no exception, but ultimately, the project was dominated by artists and scenes from Ontario.
“The original idea had been to celebrate Canada in all its rich variety from coast to coast, but in reality the men (there were no women) who ran it were all based in Ottawa or Toronto and tended to trust an old-boy network that travelled in the same circles,” according to Art For War and Peace.
A.Y. Jackson, a Quebecker, sought a wider range of scenes, but was a lone voice. Western contributions included John Ensor’s Summer’s Store, a prairie scene; Jack Humphrey’s Swallow Tail, Grand Manan in New Brunswick; and W.P. Weston’s Vancouver Lions. In all, 26 of the 36 wartime prints were by artists based in Ontario. Jackson contributed three works, all of scenes from other provinces – Quebec Village; Pincher Creek, Alberta (Alberta Farm); and Peace River Bridge, in British Columbia.
[Ed note: While one of the few non-Ontario-based artists participating in the project at the time, Jack Weldon Humphrey (1901-1967) was born in Saint John, New Brunswick and his contribution was a New Brunswick scene.]
- See related story SECRET HANDSHAKE: Douglas Coupland and the Sampson-Matthews prints.