Witness - Canadian Art of the First World War

February 8 - May 27, 2018

One hundred years ago, artists and soldiers of the First World War used art to convey to those back in Canada what they had witnessed. In grappling with how to depict the unfamiliar sights -- tanks and gas attacks, dead and wounded fellow soldiers and friends, total destruction of the world around them -- some employed a familiar artistic framework, others sought new artistic means to depict the war. Today, these same works continue to help us understand Canada’s role in this unprecedented global conflict. 

Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War, a travelling exhibition developed by the Canadian War Museum, is on display at the University of Calgary’s Founders’ Gallery at The Military Museums until Sunday May 27, 2018. It contains some of the most impressive works from Canada’s national collection of war art and is the only installation of this exhibition in Alberta. Witness contains 53 works by 40 of Canada’s best-known artists including AY Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Henrietta Mabel May, Paul Nash, Dorothy Stevens and Frederick Varley. 

Witness is organized into four thematic sections. Canadians at War shows Canadians supporting the war effort at home and away. Conspicuously absent are depictions of shell-shock or any semblance of fear, encouraging one to consider the ramifications of this omission. 

Landscape dominates the history of Canadian art, and the chapter Landscapes of War shows this genre permeating war art as well. Pock-marked, cratered, covered in smoke and chlorine gas, it is only through the land itself where the devastation and horror of war are depicted. Varley’s canvases of desolate landscapes, in particular, embody his anti-war sentiments. 

Ruins of War shows war’s cost to Europe’s built environment. Because of the reluctance of Canadian artists to depict human carnage, these ruins were sketched, drawn, and painted as gentler means of conveying the enormous human cost of war. AY Jackson’s destroyed homes certainly inspire one to consider the fate of residents. 

Tools of War provides a view of the first mechanized war and the totality of manufactured lethality. This section oscillates between strident realism and modernist experimentation. Notably, this chapter includes Arthur Lismer’s depiction of dazzle camouflaged ships—a crossover in the history of modernist abstract painting and war history. 

The last day to see Witness is Sunday May 27, 2018. 

Gassed Redux,  a new project by Adad Hannah, will open June 22 at 6pm in the Founders’ Gallery.