THE WOUNDS OF WAR
In May 2015, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection invited me to contribute a component about A.Y. Jackson in 1916 for its planned 2016 50th anniversary commemorative exhibition program, 50/50/50. I had recently retired from the position of Historian, Art and War at the Canadian War Museum and was immediately enthused about working on my favourite subject in a new institution. Sarah Stanners, Director, Collections and Curatorial, assured me by email that I did not have to concern myself with Tom Thomson. I ignored her. Not deliberately, I promise, but because I never reread her instructive note until eight months later. Sarah kindly never brought this lapse to my attention and thus it was that I buried myself in the wartime work of both Jackson and Thomson for two wonderful weeks in August.
As a curator, I believe passionately about letting collections determine the shape of an exhibition. I therefore had no preconceived ideas about what The Wounds of War would look like. Although I knew quite a bit about Jackson’s wartime art, I knew considerably less about Thomson’s despite the fact that he composed his most celebrated landscape paintings, The West Wind and The Jack Pine, in 1916-17 during the First World War. Buried in a quiet, windowless room at the McMichael, with the help of the Internet, I began to immerse myself in familiar and unfamiliar wartime art by these two artists.
A.Y. Jackson (1882 – 1974), The Red Maple, 1914, oil on canvas, 21.6 x 26.9 cm, In Memory of Gertrude Wells Hilborn, McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
They memorably painted together in Algonquin Park in the fall of 1914 shortly after war was declared in August. Jackson’s celebrated The Red Maple resulted from this trip. The McMichael owns the original sketch for this masterpiece. Painted by a rushing stream when war was on Jackson’s mind, we are witnesses to the troubling image of a young tree stalwartly holding itself upright against an almost overpowering current as its dying leaves fall away. October 1914 was the last time these two artists would work together yet their friendship, of less than one year’s duration at that time, marked them both indelibly. With Jackson, Thomson studied European painting techniques and from Thomson, Jackson learned to appreciate the profound beauty of the Canadian backwoods. As I worked, I came to realize that the wartime art of both artists formed an astonishing memorial to a brief but immensely significant creative collaboration perhaps unmatched in Canadian art history.
Tom Thomson (1877-1917), Algonquin, October 1914, oil on wood, 26.9 x 21.6 cm, Gift of the Founders, Robert and Signe McMichael, McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
The First World War provided the crucible that fired their creative juices. Jackson, the younger of the two, enlisted in June 1915 at the age of 32 and barely escaped with his life only a year later in the killing fields that were the Battle of Mount Sorrel, where a total of 8,430 Canadian men were killed, wounded or reported missing between June 2 and 14, 1916. The Wounds of War opens on June 4, 2016, and it is sobering to consider that 100 years ago to this day, Jackson realized unequivocally that he had survived a catastrophic battle. A bullet hit him in the hip and shrapnel smashed into his shoulder but he recovered. He kept the bullet and the shrapnel in a small box until his death and they are now part of the McMichael’s collection. Neither piece of metal is big: the compressed bullet is the size of a small button and the shrapnel resembles a piece of grit. They may have become talismans for Jackson, reminding him every day that he was alive. He never fought again. Instead he became a war artist and then one of this country’s most effective patriots. By defending through art the creative and living force that was Canada for the rest of his life, he honoured those who never had the chance to do so.
And what of Thomson? He did not enlist. As well-known Canadian military historian, Tim Cook, told me: “His age [he turned 37 the day after war was declared]… likely kept him out. And there would have been few who pressured a man in his late 30s to enlist. Even with conscription, they were taking 20- to 24-year-olds; it would have been a long time to get to the late 30s.” If conscription might have been a possibility, the Military Service Act authorizing it was passed only in late August 1917, by which time Thomson was dead. Instead, the painter fought his battles in Algonquin Park, in 1916 as a fire ranger. Many of his most powerful paintings from this period depict burnt land and trees affected by wind, fire and water. In the Ontario northlands, Thomson found equivalencies for the battered European western front that he read about in letters and in newspapers.
When I first saw Jackson’s war paintings at the Canadian War Museum in 1992, I was uncertain as to whether Jackson had brought Ontario to the western front or the western front to his post-war treatment of the Canadian landscape.
Developing this exhibition, I discovered that both conclusions are correct and that Thomson was Jackson’s guiding light. With war looming darkly on the horizon in 1914, Thomson introduced Jackson to an approach to landscape painting that was very different from the younger artist’s European experiences. In 1917, news of Thomson’s death reached Jackson in England shortly before he expected to return to the front. On August 4, he wrote of Thomson to artist J.E.H. MacDonald, “My debt to him is almost that of a new world.” As an official war artist struggling to utilize his European training, Jackson recalled in his 1958 autobiography, A Painter’s Country, that “charming landscapes” did not convey battlefield realities. Instead, as The Wounds of War shows, Jackson engaged with Thomson’s new world. His great war paintings like The Green Crassier followed and, later, his dedicated commitment to this new world, Canada.