By Paul Gessell
War posters traditionally have fit into one of three categories. There are recruitment posters — America’s Uncle Sam Needs You being the most famous. A second category tries to maintain morale on the home front, sometimes by showing Mom and the kids happily harvesting wheat while Dad serves overseas. The third demonizes the enemy, such as the notorious Second World War poster showing evil looking Japanese soldiers ready to pounce on a house full of sleeping Canadian children.
And then there are the war posters created by Canada’s best known contemporary war artist Gertrude Kearns. Unlike most war posters, Kearns’s work is not meant to be propaganda supporting, or criticizing, military activities. Instead, Kearns approaches her posters like an unbiased journalist approaches a news story: She simply tells it like it is.
The Toronto-based Kearns is something of a favourite at the Canadian War Museum. The foyer’s portrait wall features three paintings by Kearns: One about the Canadian military’s Somali misadventure in 1993; a controversial portrait of a mentally distressed General Romeo Dallaire, of Rwanda fame, painted on camouflage cloth; and a third one showing General Lewis Mackenzie, who, depending upon your perspective, is either a hero or a villain of the 1992 Yugoslavian civil war.
Kearns is currently in the midst of an ambitious project to create 24 war posters. Most of them feature portrait-like images of prominent Canadian soldiers: Dallaire, Mackenzie and several officers with leadership roles in Afghanistan, including Brigadier General David Fraser. One of her latest creations is a poster of Colonel Pat Stogran, the military ombudsman fired for speaking too loudly.
The borders of the posters contain various phrases, slogans, or word-plays that resonate most strongly with soldiers. To a non-military audience these message can be confusing, even insulting, to the military. Take Stogran’s poster bearing the word “unfuck.” Loosely translated from military trash talk, the word suggests that a situation formerly screwed up is now working better
My personal favourite phrases are found on General Mackenzie’s poster. The top of the poster says: Keep the Peace. The bottom says: Or I’ll Kill You.
This is not meant to be a criticism of Mackenzie or even of his mission during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Rather, the two jarring lines of text succinctly sum up what was the reality of the situation.
Likewise with the poster of Brigadier General Steven Noonan, a former commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan. The top of his poster reads: Planning from the Front. The bottom says: Leading from the Rear. That last line was how fighting soldiers, back in the First World War, referred to their distant leaders, safely in London, planning campaigns without having the foggiest notion of what the battlefield was really like. The Afghan conflict is not like the First World War. The concepts of “front” and “rear” are totally different in a place like Afghanistan where there is no identifiable “front” and, thus, no identifiable “rear.”
Some of the paintings Kearns did of military brass for the poster series have already found their way into military collections. But what about the actual war poster series? Kearns does not expect the series to be completed until 2013. The posters will be printed in limited editions and will not be available for mass market consumption.
Kearns has been told by commercial galleries that her posters are not “subversive enough.” In other words, the posters are not critical of the military or war in general. This is not the first time military artists have complained about the attitude of commercial galleries. Ted Zuber, an official war artist and a veteran of the Korean War from the Kingston area, has made similar complaints recently.
Well, Kearns came to the war museum recently bearing a portfolio of the war posters so far completed. Let’s hope that someday we will be able to see an exhibition at that venue of these posters that neither glorify not criticize our military but tell the story truthfully in plain language.