A new exhibit at the Military Museums of Calgary is showcasing a national tradition of war artists in Canada and highlighting their role in the age of YouTube videos and online coverage.

For nearly 100 years, the Canadian government has commissioned civilian artists to create a record of this country at war.

These artists have covered conflicts around the world and include several icons in their ranks, including the late Canadian painter Alex Colville, and their work opens to the public on Wednesday in the exhibit Forging a Nation: Canada Goes to War.

"It was my job to record what I saw, what was happening," Colville said in 2003.

The war artist programs have changed over the decades and even disappeared entirely during peace time.

These days, it has to contend with a flood of photos and footage from conflict zones that have become online and instant, fuelling a debate about the relevance of an old tradition.

Alex Colville, A German Flare Goes Up

Alex Colville's 1944 piece, 'A German Flare Goes Up' is one of the pieces included in a show at the Military Museums of Calgary. (Credit: Canada War Museum)

"You can go and you can take pictures on your phone or with a video camera and you can record that experience visually," said Michael Markowsky, currently sponsored by the Canadian Forces Artists Program. "You can get a little bit of the sound — but you can't record how it feels. That's what visual art and art in general can do, is to get into the personal, to get inside and express the inner feelings."

Art helps people 'see' war

As later generations display and study the work of Canada's war artists, many are still making that connection.

For the curators of the exhibit, the hope is that it will give people a better understanding of what it feels like to be that close to conflict.

"When you're sort of inundated by all these images, you sort of think you have an idea of what it's like, whereas in actuality, there's so much more to it that through artists, you're able to see," said Lindsey Sharman, curator of art at the Founders' Gallery, which is supported by the University of Calgary's Library and Cultural Resources.

Canada's first female war artist has argued their role is to go beyond images.

"I think it depends very much on the artist and I think that it's a personal view of what's going on," said Molly Lamb Bobak in 2003.

"It has to come from the eye of the artist."

The exhibit runs until March 7 at the Military Museums at 4520 Crowchild Trail S.W.