The Art of War: Dispatches from the Front Lines

Lieutenant D. Alex Colville, War Artist, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, in Germany, March 4, 1945. Credit: Lieut. Barney J. Gloster / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-206003.

This month on our Twitter feed (@Memory_Project), we’re going to be putting the spotlight on Canadian war artists—past and present. Since Lord Beaverbrook established the Canadian War Memorials Fund in 1916, Canada has recognized the need to bear witness to the realities of war and conflict, and of the crucial role of the artist in doing so. Over the years, many artists have been commissioned to depict Canadian involvement in conflicts and missions worldwide; they have been faced with the question: what does war really look like? And their responses have been rich and wide-ranging.

Support for their efforts has, however, come in waves. Lord Beaverbrook’s First World War art program lasted until 1919; it commissioned over 60 artists to depict what they saw on the battlefields and on the home front. The great success of this program ensured that a similar program was launched during the Second World War: the Canadian War Art Program, created in 1943 by the Department of National Defence. This time, only actively serving members of the Canadian military were eligible to be commissioned artists.

Alex Colville, probably better known for his post-war paintings, was a commissioned war artist during the Second World War. During his interview with the Memory Project, he shared his thoughts about this role:

“So it was, what would be a kind of literary equivalent to a person being a kind of reporter … and later, writing a book or a long article…kind of gathering together what he had done. For me, it was work. If you’re a writer or a painter, your material is life as you see it being lived and that’s it, you get to work and do it.”

Mr. Colville was, as he puts it, an “artistic reporter”; but the works he and his fellow war artists produced do so much more than just convey the facts: their emotional resonance and singular perspective provide Canadians with an invaluable insight into the war experience.

The value of these artistic documents was again recognized in 1968 with the introduction of the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program (CAFCAP). The impulse to bear witness, which was strong during the First and Second World Wars, had been revived. CAFCAP was committed to depicting the Canadian post-war military experience, from life on the bases, to missions in Cyprus, Cambodia, and Haiti, to name a few. While the program was cut due to budget constraints in 1995, with the new millennium came a new initiative—the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP). This program gives Canadian contemporary artists an opportunity to immerse themselves in the experience of the Canadian Forces alongside servicewomen and men, and to observe, in Alex Colville’s words, “life as you see it being lived.”

The Canadian War Museum has been instrumental in showcasing these works since a Curator of War Art was first appointed there in 1960. The online exhibition Canvas of War and the travelling exhibition A Brush with War are two recent examples.

Since the first paintings of the First World War, war artists have depicted what they see so that we may glimpse military conflict from the front lines: they show us both the darker aspects of conflict and warfare, as well as the light. Canadian war artists today continue to share their perspectives honestly and skillfully; we look forward to introducing our followers to some of these talented artists over the next month.