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Reflections of the Past: the Beaverbrook Art Gallery Presents War Art Exhibits

Imagine looking into a small, 14th century village in Somalia. The rumblings of large, forceful Canadian tanks pierce the air as the enormous machines drive towards the village. Canadian soldiers surround a community of exposed, unarmed, vulnerable people. At the center of the village is an abattoir, where villagers customarily slaughter oxen. As blood drips from the bovine carcass, elder women of the village bathe a sick boy in the blood.

Ernest Fosbery, Sergeant T. W. Holmes, V.C. around 1918 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0148

Ernest Fosbery, Sergeant T. W. Holmes, V.C. around 1918 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0148

War is the theme of two of the exhibits currently on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery: Witness, which features Canadian Art of the First World War, and a collection of works by Allan Harding MacKay, a Canadian war artist.

The above description is of a work by MacKay, and he attempted to differentiate his work from those that crafted wartime art before him. For instance, he put together some of the images in video form.

Arthur Lismer, Olympic with Returned Soldiers, 1919 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0343

Arthur Lismer, Olympic with Returned Soldiers, 1919 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0343

Jeffrey Spalding, senior curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, believes that the beauty of war time art lies in “the contrast between our idea that we can take these mega-technological marvelous machines to protect and take them into this other world where [… ] they actually think they can save a child by bathing him in blood.”

The exhibits shine a light into the past and depict the war as vividly as the people in the past experienced it.

“Witness – Canadian Art of the First World War examines how Canadians depicted their First World War experiences in art, both at home and overseas, whether as official war artists or as soldiers in the field. The exhibition includes a diverse range of subjects and artists,” said Avra Gibbs Lamey, senior communications and media relations officer at the Canadian War Museum.

Spalding added that the audience should remember that war is still very much a part of our lives.

“We still live in very dangerous times where world aggression is not a part of history; it’s something we live with every day, and war and aggression continues to this very moment,” said Spalding.

Daniel Sherrin, British Tank in Action, 1917 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19880154-001

Daniel Sherrin, British Tank in Action, 1917 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19880154-001

While he believes that considering war and aggression to be events of the past can pose great danger, Spalding concluded that art works depicting the war can alert people of this danger in ways that documentaries or photojournalism cannot.

Spalding further stated that war arts can illustrate how Canada responds to and remembers the wars.

“[Canada has] a specific way of thinking about [the war], and how we memorialize it and record it … in Canada our approach to Remembrance Day is to remember how horrid it is if we must go to war … this has got to be the last resort,” he said.

The two exhibits, despite sharing a common theme, are quite different. Witness was created by the Canadian War Museum as part of “a dynamic and varied program of exhibitions and activities to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.” The MacKay exhibit features the events of Somalia, Afghanistan and other more recent issues. When presented together, these differences and similarities combine to create a unique artistic experience.

William Beatty, A Shell Hole, between 1917 and 1919 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0104

William Beatty, A Shell Hole, between 1917 and 1919 © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario 19710261-0104

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