When the guns went silent on Nov. 11, 1918, Canadian art had a unique legacy — namely, the work of 60 artists, including greats such as Fred Varley and A. Y. Jackson, who were commissioned to paint under a program created by Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere. In 1943, a second war artists program began, elevated by the work of Alex Colville and Charles F. Comfort.
The tradition continues with the current Canadian Forces Artists Program, which recruits civilian volunteers. Gertrude Kearns of Toronto, Karole Marois of Ottawa and Zeqirja Rexhepi of Dartmouth, N.S., are among the artists chosen to participate, and their work is both a meditation on war and a profound remembrance.
Kearns is one of only a handful of artists chosen in 2003 under the Canadian Forces Artists Program to have actually been to Afghanistan. She got a six-month commission in 2006 to produce a series of paintings for the Department of National Defence.
"The commission was originally for five canvases, but we changed it to six because I wanted to include a portrait of the police chief in the Kandahar region. Focusing on leadership from an Afghan perspective as well as from a Canadian perspective was something I wanted to address in the series," she says.
The paintings, all produced in six months, are powerful in their immediacy, with subjects ripped from the news, including a suicide bombing and the injury of Master Cpl. Paul Franklin. Yet there’s also a strong conceptual element to Kearns’s acrylic canvases.
"I did whatever came up. It’s so much to absorb," she says. "Though I had four and a half weeks, which was great. I was trying to be open."
Because her series centred on leadership, Kearns was very conscious of the burden of responsibility falling on both Afghans and Canadians in the conflict. She is fascinated by the way the military works, but also with the kind of individuals it creates. Kearns’s past work includes a portrait of Maj.-Gen. Lewis Mackenzie in Sarajevo and of Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda, an image that uses camouflage to convey a metaphor for Dallaire’s dilemma in the 1994 genocide. The portrait of Afghan police Chief Col. Hussein Andiwall reflects her compassion for the Afghan situation.
"There was so much I tried to get into that one portrait. I call it Ancient Modern — the sense of timelessness, the burden of the ongoing involvement in the war for Afghanistan, yet with the computer mouse on the coffee table in front and the disposable Canadian coffee cup — which I made up. [It conveys] that sense of irony and that sense of dichotomy that the Afghans have in terms of how disposable we might be, what purpose can we serve for them."
Afghans are in every one of Kearns’s works, along with ordinary soldiers who she may have seen for only a few minutes and officers who she knew long enough to start to discern personality beneath their military exteriors.
"I did juxtapose Afghans. In Eh-Symmetric, absolutely the most important character in the piece is the one painted smallest, and it is an Afghan in the lower left corner. A lot of people have picked up on that," Kearns says. The man stands almost unprotected as the technology of war takes over the Canadian figures.
"That’s a whole area I’d like to delve into more — the searing burden on the Afghans. They’re an extremely accommodating people, too, and within that accommodation is that very clash — they’re really trapped," Kearns says.
Kearns emphasizes her support for the Afghan mission, but says the pieces she created in 2006 only go part way in conveying the full experience of war. She was asked in the commission to provide three-by-four-foot canvases — restrictive because the size was so small. As she processes her experiences in Afghanistan, Kearns would like to produce more works based on the sketches and photos she has from that period. She is conscious of wanting to build on Canada’s tradition of searing and disturbing war art.
"Some artists might just use the photographs and make a nice drawing out of it and that is done a fair amount. I’d say that’s military illustration. It’s not carrying it to another level. War art should have a power to it — basically the same sort of power that war has. I guess that’s the ultimate challenge."
Karole Marois of Ottawa has always been drawn to scenes of history and heritage, painting public murals that show, for example, the history of Ottawa’s Italian community or, in an upcoming commission, scenes from the War of 1812.
"I was interested because, in my work, basically I am fascinated with how people cope in life, their struggles," she says. "I thought this is the perfect time, given the opportunity to follow the soldiers for a time — you know, who are they?"
She applied to the war artist program hoping to go to Afghanistan, and she prepared for the trip in 2003 by following soldiers training for the Afghan mission in Sherbrooke, Que. But a series of bombings in Kabul made the trip too risky and it was called off. Instead, Marois accompanied Canadian soldiers for three weeks on a trip to the Netherlands in 2005, where the Dutch were celebrating 60 years since Canadian soldiers marched in and liberated them from the Nazis.
"The Dutch were in a mood of celebration … and it was so crowded I had to march in the parade with the soldiers. It was very moving for me," she recalls.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that she had the time to produce a finished work, called Parade. The program pays expenses for civilians travelling with the military, but it commissions work only rarely and Marois was working on her own time. Parade is a 20-foot mural, which uses a series of tall, narrow canvases to convey the emotion of the 2005 celebrations. There’s a strong impression of grey — because it rained so much and the celebrations were tempered with a sombre tone of loss. But Marois likes to put in small surprises. Two of the panels are just of gravestones — one of a man, one of a woman, both Canadians buried on Dutch ground.
"Holland being so flat, the gravestones stick out everywhere [as vertical images].… I am using that image of the vertical, very narrow canvases to represent the graves, but also the soldiers standing in order. I’m trying to go to the essence of that feeling," Marois says.
The panels with their differing images are meant to look like a film missing a piece — Marois’s meditation on the way the world is forgetting the pain and destruction of the Second World War. "In between my canvases, it’s like there is a memory gap. It has to do with remembrance. We forget some of it, but the essence is still there," she says. "We’re trying to remember some of it, but always there is something lost."
A second piece, called Tulips, which she has yet to finish, contrasts colourful images of tulips with the suffering of the Dutch and other disturbing elements that flash back to the war. "You’ll see all these beautiful tulips — you know, luscious. And then all of a sudden, there’d be an image of the Dutch during the winter of 1944; they were eating those tulip bulbs to stay alive. Always there is the beautiful and the ugly — the contrast," she says.
At a time when we are bombarded with photographs and videos of war, a painting or something handmade has the power to force people to stop and reflect, Marois says. She says she felt a sense of duty to convey what was beneath the celebrations.
"As an artist, we are not reporters. We mix it all up and more of the message comes across," Marois says. "It’s always in the back of your mind, as an artist. What is it that you are trying to show? And all you can say is, ‘I am unique in the way I feel. All I can do is show you is the way I see it and maybe there will be someone [who] will connect with me.’ "
For Dartmouth, N.S.-based artist Zeqirja Rexhepi, war is a painful memory that underscores his work as a Canadian war artist. An Albanian who lived in Kosovo until he was forced to flee in 1999, Rexhepi recalls doing a huge mural of the history of Albania under the Turkish empire, a time in which his grandfather was a soldier.
"I thought at that time, I knew everything. But I didn’t. Until you’ve been in a war, you don’t know," he says. In 1998, the war that destroyed Kosovo and drove out most of its Albanian citizens arrived to teach him.
"I left my house. I didn’t know where I am. You are alive, but you don’t know where you are. You need help and your life has no value," he says. "The people are like gods who come to help you, the soldiers."
The soldiers who came were Canadian, part of a NATO and UN force that fought to keep the peace in the shambles of the Balkans. Rexhepi came to Halifax and started over. The first artwork he did when he arrived strived to convey the sense of dislocation and loss of hope experienced by people in the midst of war. He worked from memory.
"I saw how the soldiers ought to be — close with people, not like the soldiers in Kosovo who will kill you. My first show was here in Halifax and I saw for the first time people crying in a show," he says. "They had a connection with my paintings — some people stand an hour or more watching it. That is the goal of an artist, that kind of connection."
Rexhepi’s work is abstract, and expresses what he calls the psychological effects of war with symbols and metaphors. A violin is smashed and squeezed by powerful hands, symbolizing the loss of culture, a disembodied face emerges from a dark canvas — the face of the dead — and a white bird-like figure flies in a blue sky — his metaphor for Canada and also for hope.
When Rexhepi was accepted into the program, he already felt a powerful connection to Canada’s soldiers. And, because of his personal experience, he believed war, and the pain it creates, to be a universal affliction. One of his paintings is built on a map of the world, with darkness emerging from Afghanistan, the Middle East and many parts of Africa, while clear skies hover over Canada. He wants people to take the time to look into his paintings and pick up these references. "The first impression of viewers is, ‘Oh, nice colours.’ After that, viewers have to start to read the painting — not just looking, but reading it. My artwork tells a story."
Rexhepi used to work in oils, but now uses mainly acrylics and mixed media, attempting to give texture to the paintings. "Especially with the war paintings, I work with mixed media. I want to use some rough stuff, to show the trouble here."
In 2005, he attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa to record the event as an artist. In the ensuing work, Changes, the airplanes and chaos of the Second World War sweep across the sky and a large stone sculpture represents the strength of those who fought for freedom.
"The veterans are small figures, some in wheelchairs, looking at that sky and remembering what they saw at that time," Rexhepi says. "I put that rock standing in front — behind that nice colour and Canadian flag — to show how they built our freedom. It was shown at National Defence [headquarters] in Ottawa and I got so many letters from people who liked it; they started to read the colours and symbols."
Susan Noakes is a staff writer for CBCNews.ca.