Thursday, January 22, 2009

"A Brush with War: Military Art from Korea to Afghanistan"

At the McMichael Gallery, located in the village of Kleinburg, just minutes north of Toronto, January 17 to June 14, 2009:

Canadian A.P.C. Patrol - Old City, Nicosia, Cyprus

Colin Williams
Canadian A.P.C. Patrol – Old City, Nicosia, Cyprus 1974, 1975
oil on art board
76.2 x 101.6 cm
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
CWM 19750563-002

From the Ottawa Citizen:

Canadian war artists have had a tough time the last half century. Unlike their counterparts from the two world wars, there have been few heroic scenes like those from the great battles at Vimy Ridge or Dieppe to capture on canvas and stir the emotions of the folks back home.

Instead, these latter-day artists have often had to make do with the Cold War, Arctic patrols, peacekeeping, the Snowbirds and other far tamer military activities than A.Y. Jackson encountered in the First World War or Alex Colville found in the Second World War.

But what about Afghanistan? Artists do get to visit Afghanistan, but are often kept so far from the action that they can spend their time more productively painting scenes of off-duty soldiers tossing a Frisbee than in trying to capture battlefront action.

When Canadian soldiers fought in the Korean War from 1950-53, the Defence Department had no war art program to record their action. So, don't count on much from those battles. Artist Ted Zuber did serve in Korea as a soldier, not an artist, and did not paint his recollections until 1978. Later, he did sign up as a military artist in other countries.

Zuber's painting Contact, 1978, depicting a battle against troops from North Korea's ally, China, at Little Gibraltar, otherwise known as Hill 355, is among 64 artworks included in a new nationally travelling exhibition, A Brush With War: Military Art from Korea to Afghanistan. This is the first opportunity ever for the public to see, in one place, a good sampling of art depicting our soldiers at work from the 1950s to the present.

The exhibition was organized by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and the Defence Department and has just been installed at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, near Toronto and will remain there until June 14. The exhibition will not be at the war museum until next year, from Feb. 4 to May 2. Other stops during the next three years include Calgary, Fredericton and the Ontario cities of London, Hamilton and Oshawa.

This show follows the very successful exhibition, Canvas of War, a vast collection of dramatic art from the First and Second World Wars assembled by the war museum in 2000 and sent on an extensive, well-attended national tour. Some of that art had never before been exhibited, or had not been seen since the First World War-era. It was an exhibition to boost national pride.

Following the Second World War, the Defence Department had no official art program until 1968. It was reinstituted then, revamped a few times since and continues today as Canada faces deadly military challenges in Afghanistan. Indeed, the cover of the exhibition catalogue is an arresting 2007 self-portrait of Ottawa artist Karen Bailey wearing a military helmet and a dazed look as she flies in a Hercules en route to Kandahar.

Bailey had signed up for the military art program thinking she might end up sketching cooks in a Defence cafeteria in Ottawa. Instead, she was sent to a Canadian military hospital in Afghanistan, where she made drawings (later to be paintings) of Canadian doctors and nurses treating injured Afghan civilians.

The purpose of A Brush With War is largely to exhibit paintings produced by artists who served with various official military art programs. So, it is not a comprehensive look at all war-themed art of the last half-century. And despite the involvement of Defence, don't expect the art to be all flattering to the military. The show contains some disturbing paintings from Somalia and Rwanda...
More on Afstan and war art here, here, here here, and here.


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