ARTFUL BLOGGER: <em>Witness</em> First World War paintings at the Canadian War Museum
Arts & Culture

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Witness First World War paintings at the Canadian War Museum


Sergeant T. W. Holmes, V.C. by Ernest Fosbery, one of the paintings part of Witness at the Canadian War Museum

Back in the 1940s, silk-screened prints of landscape paintings by the Group of Seven and other leading Canadian artists were sent to schools across the country. This joint project by the National Gallery of Canada and the private firm Sampson-Matthews Ltd. was not just to foster art appreciation. It was also meant to foster pride in one’s own country.

I thought of that long-ago program as I visited the new art exhibition at the Canadian War Museum. The show, Witness — Canadian Art of the First World War, marks the centenary of the outbreak of the War to End All Wars and brings together more than 50 paintings and drawings from celebrated war artists, such as A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, and Arthur Lismer, as well as amateur soldier-artists sitting in the trenches, sketching scenes on scraps of paper to send home to loved ones.

Many of the paintings in Witness — some as big as billboards — have not been publicly exhibited in half a century, or more. These paintings tell the story of the First World War so eloquently. These paintings are part of Canadians’ shared experience. They should be seen far more frequently than every half-century.

Like the Group of Seven landscapes in the 1940s, the stories told by these First World War paintings should be shared with school children. There is no need to create prints to send to schools. Through the Internet, these paintings can be brought into every classroom.

The paintings are not just history lessons about the First World War. They are lessons about the birth of a nation, for it was on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge in France in 1917 that Canada sent the Germans packing. They proved that we were not just some colonial appendage of Great Britain, but were a sovereign nation with an army of brave and powerful soldiers.

Consider the painting Sergeant T.W. Holmes, V.C. by Ernest Fosberry. V.C. stands for Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in the Commonwealth. Holmes earned that award at age 19. The painting by Fosberry shows Holmes at age 20, but the decorated soldier looks much younger. Here is how the Defence Department describes Holmes’s heroism.

Mud Road to Passchendaele by Douglas Culham

“During the First World War he served with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, Canadian Expeditionary Force. On 26 October 1917 the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles was taking part in the opening assault by the Canadian Corps on German defences near Passchendaele in Belgium. Heavy machine gun and rifle fire from a German ‘pillbox’ fortification had stopped the advance by the Canadians on the right flank, and had inflicted many casualties. Alone and on his own initiative, Private Holmes ran forward and with two grenades killed and wounded the crews of two of the enemy machine guns. Returning for another grenade, he again attacked the pillbox alone and under heavy fire. Holmes threw his grenade into the entrance of the pillbox and compelled the surrender of its 19 occupants, in so doing clearing the way for the advance to resume.”

What a story! Every school child in Canada should learn about the heroism of Private Holmes of Owen Sound, Ont.

Or consider the dramatic painting Mud Road to Passchendaele by Douglas Culham. The scene shows horses laden with ammunition being led through knee-deep mud to Canadian positions. It is scene from hell. There is smoke, fire, and the dead — both human and animal. Almost 16,000 Canadians were killed or wounded at Passchendaele.

Every Canadian school student should learn about Passchendaele, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and all the other horrific battles that killed thousands of soldiers, many still in their teens. These are landmarks in Canadian history.

Witness is just one of many First World War exhibitions planned at the Canadian War Museum during the next four years. Alongside Witness is an exhibition called Transformations, comparing the art of Canadian war artist A.Y. Jackson with a German counterpart, Otto Dix.

Witness — Canadian Art of the First World War and Transformations run until Sept. 21.