It was common in the First and Second World War for the Canadian government to officially appoint war artists to record various events on the battlefield. War artists lived the life of a soldier, but worked as a journalist. Their role was mainly educational: to record military conflicts and the experiences of the men and women who endured them. War artists were able to document military activities in ways that cameras and the written word could not. The hope was that through this art, future generations could truly understand how war shapes and impacts lives.
War art was by no means limited to those individuals who were officially appointed by the government. Often, soldiers and prisoners of war would choose to document their experiences through art. Some artists chose to record life at home during the war, focusing on the struggles of women and children. Even individuals who did not participate in the war had a story to tell – many non-combatants created works of art after witnessing an especially powerful event.
Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, was responsible for developing an official art program in Canada during the First World War. A true patriot, Aitken felt a strong desire to record the war from Canada’s point of view. He created the Canadian War Records Office, which was dedicated to documenting the war in film, photograph, and print. After a horrific German gas attack on the Canadians in April and May 0f 1915, Aitken realized that some events could not be photographed and decided that the war must also be documented through art.
The officially appointed war artists began by spending time on the battlefield making sketches of their surroundings. Later, these pieces were turned into larger works of art that truly reflected Canada’s role in the war. The Canadian War Museum is now home to an extensive collective of works by Canada’s war artists.
“While these vivid images are of a now distant past, they continue to communicate their messages to us, and so never lose their relevance." - Anne Hudson, assistant curator of Canadian Art at the AGO
References: Canadian War Museum, Wikipedia