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Book Reviews

Art Or Memorial? The Forgotten History Of Canada’s War Art

by Laura Brandon

Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006 ISBN 1-55238-178-1 264 pages, $64.95 soft cover

Reviewed by John MacFarlane

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Book coverLaura Brandon writes that her book is, in some ways, “a response to David Glassberg’s 1996 call for ‘new scholarly works on memory [that] have incorporated insights from public historians’ experiences working in museums’.” No one knows the subject better than the author, curator of the amazing collection of war art at the Canadian War Museum (CWM). The collection has received surprisingly little public attention throughout the 20th Century, and this book, examining some of the reasons for this, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of an important part of Canadian history. But Brandon’s book not only incorporates the important perspective of museum employees as called for by Glassberg, it is entirely written by a museum employee, and this creates problems.

Dr. Brandon’s text, accompanied by 50 pages of excellent reproductions, looks at how the collection has been used over the years, forgotten at times, and remembered at others. She argues convincingly that “aesthetic considerations are secondary by far to the works value, or lack thereof, to varying interest groups at different times. Furthermore, when people assign aesthetic value to certain works of art, artists, or styles, these reflect contextual pressures, not intrinsic and inherent quality.” She concludes that “memory’s creation involves forces that interact in various ways and at different times. The public, veterans, governments, artists, curators, the media, museums and galleries and the military all have had a part to play.”

The first chapters deal with the approximately 1000 works of the First World War. Were they glorifying war? Were they helping build a nation or drawing attention to a divisive subject? She provides interesting insights into how the art was seen at the time, and why it remained largely unknown. Approximately 5000 more works of art were created during the Second World War. In 1971, the collection was transferred from the National Gallery, which was more interested in abstract works, to the CWM, and it continued to receive limited publicity through occasional tours and exhibits until the 1990s. Ceremonies surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Second World War events help explain why the art thence became popular, as suggested by the success of the CWM’s Canvas of War exhibit, attracting as it did nearly half a million people to nine galleries between 2000 and 2004.

Her experience with the CWM is an advantage, but it is also a problem, as the roles of other actors are neglected. For example, the contribution of the Department of National Defence (DND) in helping to create the art is minimized. The Department is criticized for losing works: “By 1946, after only a few short years in its care, over 150 [of more than 5,000] of the program’s known works had vanished.” The author also argues that art “selection has consistently responded to DND’s image of itself,” while the CWM has sought to “ensure its quality, regardless of subject matter.” The only example provided is Allan Mackay’s 1993 portrait of Colonel Serge Labbé in Somalia, which DND donated to the Museum. The author also believes that “the military has traditionally wanted to control the use and production of art,” and refers to DND’s plan to place on tour some works in 1993 that the CWM had been managing. The CWM “turned down the loan.” Shortly thereafter, DND transferred ownership to the CWM. In reality, the DND desire to control the art is not obvious.

Even more mysterious is the author’s impression that DND established the new Canadian Forces Art Program (CFAP) in June 2001, due to concern about not being associated with the commemorative events from 1995 to 2001. Her doctoral thesis had said that DND had been “consistently absent from the remembrance industry.” As most observers will remember, DND organized and led many events in 1994-5, and also provided bands and a full guard overseas during the summer of 1995. Collaborating with many groups, DND co-authored, with Veteran’s Affairs, the joint submission to Cabinet for repatriating Canada’s Unknown Soldier, and approximately 1500 members of the Canadian Forces performed highly visible roles during Operation Memoria. Again, that there was an impression in the public memory that DND was absent from the ‘remembrance industry’ is not supported by the evidence.

‘Public memory’ is a slippery concept to study. Not only does the DND perspective need to be better understood and presented. Brandon has an impressive list of sources, but there is no reference to DND archives. But the powerful role of the press, as well as the intentions and actions of political leaders, the artists themselves, and their promotional activities, and veterans’ groups, all need to be given more consideration than has occurred in this book. This is not to criticize Laura Brandon’s excellent contribution of the CWM point of view, which will be a foundation for further studies. It is simply a warning that the entire story has not been told in this book.

The role of myth in how Canadians remember the war art collection was recently illustrated in an article that picked up the most sensational, and least supported, affirmations in Art or Memorial? Although reflected in a very small part of her book, public sector bashing appears to be irresistible for the Ottawa Citizen. Paul Gessel’s article “Art Missing in Action” of 29 July 2006 repeated and exaggerated Dr. Brandon’s criticisms of DND with additional unsupported accusations. DND not only lost 150 paintings, it also “simply ditched other works that depict the military in a less than heroic light.” And DND not only disliked the 1993 work of MacKay, it “would have liked [it] to disappear.” Distortions are repeated, become even more distorted by others for their own ends, and soon, these distortions become the ‘public memory.’

Many of the perceived ‘problems’ between DND and the CWM, which are given disproportionate attention in Laura Brandon’s book, and also in this review, are things of the past. The author has been involved with the CFAP from the start, and, along with others, has played an indispensable role guiding the program that has produced excellent works. I also work with the CFAP and I know she will take the comments in this review well, and not let the air out of my tires (again). As she so correctly writes: “The program’s future remains increasingly secure. Both the Canadian War Museum and the Department of National Defence believe that art programs should be part of the recording of military life and experience.”

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John MacFarlane is a historian at the Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence, helps manage the CFAP, and is a former employee and still a friend of the Canadian War Museum.