By Ruthanne Urquhart
When we think of “war art” today, many of us think of photographs.
Cracked yellowed photos of Canada’s First World War aviators standing with pride beside the machines of wood and wire and cloth that would carry them into battle on high. Their jaunty white scarves and neat jodhpurs tucked into polished boots belie the mud and blood and soot to come. And, also from this era, the enormous paintings of heroes and generals and battles that cover walls in high-ceilinged museums and galleries.
Black-and-white and coloured photographs from the Second World War and later, of Canadian aircraft lined up on runways in England and southern France, South Korea and Italy. Agile fighters and lumbering bombers, repaired and readied by round-the-clock groundcrew so that the waving pilots and aircrew can carry the fight across the Channel, through North Africa, to the enemy in the North, over the Balkans.
Digital images, this time yellowed not by age but by blowing sand and dirt in Afghanistan, of coalition airfields where Canadians come under attack from above and from “outside the wire”, where befouled engines challenge groundcrew and aircrew alike. Where lowered ramps of cargo decks offer shelter and transport to the flag-draped coffins of Canadian warriors.
These are the pictures in our heads. Each one captures a single moment in time, as clearly as if we’d been there. Every detail in each photo ties it—and us—to that moment.
War art may be less clear, may not capture any one moment in time. But it captures something bigger, something that transcends that moment, that war. War art has the potential to reach wider and farther and longer than a photograph. And, interestingly, today’s war artists are working in mediums beyond—in fact, certainly from before—photographs.
Ottawa native Mark Thompson, one of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s embedded war artists, creates glass-based paintings and sculpture. Under the auspices of the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP), he travelled to Kuwait, where the night missions of Canada’s young CF-18 Hornet pilots stirred his imagination and impressed him profoundly. One of his first experiences in Kuwait involved a night flight over flaming oil wells, which he has described as being “life-altering”.
Mr. Thompson’s work entitled “Book of War” is a tabletop installation on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, in its current exhibition of contemporary war art. A row of five open books encased in glass lie side by side along the tabletop; within the glass of each book is a video of a CF-18 fighter aircraft in various states: day, infrared, night, etc.
The Museum chose his “Hard Rain” to be the signature work for its exhibition. It comprises three rows of five falling bombs in shades of blue, encased in glass. The white swirls through the glass emulate wisps of clouds through which the bombs are falling, and the black background is a video loop that moves up and down.
Nancy Cole is the other of this year’s RCAF-embedded war artists. She was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and grew up on military bases. An experienced textile artist, Ms Cole was placed with Canadian Forces Base/19 Wing Comox, British Columbia, courtesy of the CFAP. The war art that she subsequently produced comprises two large, hand-quilted textiles.
Ms Cole’s installation at the Canadian War Museum is entitled “Night and Day”. One textile is all black, with a grouping of small red dots in the upper right quadrant, representing the dark war-work carried out by CF-18s deployed on Operation Impact in Syria. Each red dot has a fine red, crooked or looping line radiating out from it, signifying people on the ground fleeing as the CF-18s pass overhead. The other textile is white, with a similar grouping of dots, also in the upper right quadrant. This textile signifies the other end of the spectrum of CF-18 taskings: the airshows, the flypasts, the lighthearted crowd pleasing. These dots have no red lines; we imagine these people standing in groups, looking up, watching the aircraft with smiles.
In ancient times, war art was, in fact, a multi-media undertaking. It was mosaic floors with clay, glass and gemstone elements in public and government buildings; it was sculpture and bas relief work for the homes and gardens of the wealthy. And it was intricately woven floor-coverings that warmed the stone underfoot, and wall-mounted tapestries that held drafts at bay.
During archaeological excavations today, one of the finest treasures to be unearthed is often a mosaic floor composed of tesserae, small blocks of ceramic, glass and stone. A good example is the Alexander Mosaic, dating from circa 100 BC. Measuring 2.72 by 5.13 metres, this floor mosaic from Pompeii depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia.
The Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery of wool yarn on woven linen, was created in the 11th Century. It is almost 70 metres long and 50 centimetres high, and portrays the conquest of England completed in October 1066 under the leadership of William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy.
Mark Thompson, glass artist, and Nancy Cole, textile artist, are reviving ancient traditions and mediums in war art. The RCAF is honoured that these artists have chosen to incorporate within their works the CF-18 Hornet aircraft, in image and in spirit.