The Great War: A Hundred Years On
In November 1917, while working as an official war artist attached to British forces in France, the celebrated landscape painter Paul Nash wrote home to explain how the devastation around him had clarified his sense of purpose on Europe’s blood-soaked battlefields and beyond. “I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever,” Nash wrote to his wife. “Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”
That statement – as avowedly anti-war as Nash’s most famous battlefield paintings – is more than a little ironic, given that Nash’s employer was C.F.G. Masterman, Director of Propaganda at Britain’s Ministry of Information, whose mission was to sustain public support for the Great War. Nash was not alone: a wide range of British and Canadian painters had signed up to serve Allied propaganda agencies. Many of them worked for the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO), devised by Max Aiken – soon to become Lord Beaverbrook – a Canadian who had made his mark in Britain as a businessman and newspaper mogul. Aiken envisioned an extensive visual record of the war that, besides providing a resource for future historians, would “maintain patriotism and enthusiasm and eager interest in our army in France” and produce “suitable Memorials … to the Canadian heroes and heroines in the war”.
A hundred years on, however, it is clear that the most memorable canvases produced under official patronage speak less of the heroism of the Great War and more of its horror. The four-year cataclysm, that killed 9.5 million soldiers, wounded 15 million more, and left epidemics, economic catastrophe and the promise of more war in its wake, also darkened the outlook of these artists, some of whom had begun their time abroad as enthusiastic idealists. Unlike blinkered journalists who would fabricate battle accounts to support the myth of the glorious war, many painters returned with work that spoke honestly of the grim realities they had witnessed.
Nash’s Void (1918), on display at the National Gallery of Canada and described by Nash biographer Andrew Causey as one of “the best of his war oils”, documents the all-encompassing destruction at Passchendaele. With a single crushed soldier lying amidst wrecked hardware, jagged broken trees and a biplane plummeting to earth in the distance, it depicts the insignificance of tortured humans on this chaotic landscape. In Causey’s estimation, Void is “the nearest thing in Nash’s work to a statement of hopelessness”.
A Night Bombardment (1919–20) is another unsentimental portrayal of the battlefield as backdrop to “the torments, the cruelty & terror of this war”, as Nash had referred to it in a letter. It also displays an evolution of the modernist techniques, the dominance of unsettling diagonal lines for example, that Nash adopted to capture a reality that could not have been conveyed through conventional landscape painting. A Night Bombardment, painted after Nash’s return from war, “distills Nash’s emotional reaction to the war as only pictures done away from the battlefield could; it draws on the wide range of artistic vocabulary that Nash had evolved, and shows him reaching towards a kind of symbolic abstraction that was to occupy him,” writes Causey.
Former Canadian War Museum curator Laura Brandon says the war imposed similar stylistic evolution on the Group of Seven, particularly Frederick Varley and A.Y. Jackson, who painted the Western Front for the CWRO. Jackson’s war paintings include Ypres (1917), on view in the NGC's Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, a muted and forlorn work reflecting Jackson’s ongoing concern with the devasting impacts of the war on ordinary people’s lives. It is shown alongside Varley’s war work Dead Horse Square, Monchy (c. 1918), another powerful study of the aftermath of destruction and death in a small French town.
Their war experiences changed Jackson and Varley. Returning home, they no longer portrayed the Canadian wilderness as serene or welcoming, instead incorporating “references to dead trees and devastated ground” that had entered their work during the violence. During his time in Europe Jackson in particular became fixated on the dead tree trunk – an image that was also central to Nash’s work. Eventually, this more turbulent style would be adopted by other Group of Seven artists and become a familiar feature of Canadian painting.
The two Canadians also shared with Nash a sense of horror and disgust at the inhumanity of warfare. Varley wrote in an undated letter to his wife Maud that, in order to understand this conflict, a Canadian back home would have to “see the barren deserts war has made of once fertile country … see the turned-up graves, see the dead on the field, freakishly mutilated – headless, legless, stomachless, a perfect body and a passive face and a broken, empty skull…”. In his large oil painting For What?, in the collection of the Canadian War Museum, the artist depicts a cart of dead bodies in a desolate landscape filled with white crosses and reflects on the futility of the Great War's massive loss of life.
In fact, this limitless horror had a transformative effect not just on individual artists but on Western culture as a whole. The American historian Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, says the First World War triggered an essential, enduring shift in the cultural outlook from earnestness to irony. In the visual arts, meanwhile, the advance of modernism was accelerated by the shattering impacts of industrialized warfare on both nature and the human psyche. “The whole landscape of the Western Front became surrealistic before the term surrealism was invented,” writes historian Modris Ecksteins in Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Artists had to contend with the way in which the war’s “total assault on the senses” made the struggle for survival mostly an internal one, and their art would express the absurdity of the modern battlefield: “Trees had been reduced to charred stumps; charred stumps were in turn erected, as observation posts, to look like despoiled trees,” remarks Ecksteins.
Despite this, many artists dealt with Great War themes representationally. Frances Loring’s sculpture Grief (1918), Augustus John’s A Canadian Soldier (c.1917) and Alfred Howell’s Head of a Canadian Soldier (1928) are examples in the Gallery's collection. Meanwhile, others’ attempts at finding a new language to convey the realities of war were sometimes met with official or public disapproval. David Bomberg’s Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunneling Company (1919) uses abstracted geometric forms to suggest the confinement of tunneling troops. Although the final work is less abstract and darker than an earlier study, it was nonetheless decried by traditionalists as “a Futurist abortion.”
Nash described the Great War as “unspeakable, godless, hopeless", a human-made reality where “sunset and sunrise are blasphemous”. Of the devastation in Flanders, he wrote: “No pen or drawing can convey this country.” These artists persisted, however, and thereby left future generations a window onto this now-distant nightmare that remade the world.
A selection of works from World War I is on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries as well as the European and American Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery exhibitions and news, and to learn more about art in Canada.